First-time visitors to China cannot but help being struck by the apparent capitulation of the male species at the altar of commerce. The well-dressed woman
struts about the shiny floors of the mall in the pursuit of the latest baubles and clothes, while the man clutches her expensive handbag. As the shopping trip progresses, she keeps handing over shopping bag after shopping bag to his waiting arms. Outside the changing room, he waits with an armful of clothes, as she takes turns trying them on, pirouetting and seeking approval before she darts in to try on the next outfit.
Of course, psychologists have always told us that men and women shop differently. Men seem to know exactly what they want to buy, and do not waste time; whereas women must explore, try out various options and even after a purchase may still be unsure whether their choices are indeed right (often resulting in a return trip to the same store for an exchange). When you see that the women’s floor at H&M / Zara / Uniqlo / Marks & Spencer has at least five times as many shoppers as those on the men’s floor, the psychologists seems correct.
So what is it with men carrying the bag?
KEEPING UP WITH THE COMPETITION
It can all be put down to sheer gender imbalance. In the next ten years, there will be 1.2 million more Chinese men than women attaining marriageable age, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The one child policy and a traditional preference for the male child have combined to skew the gender ratio in such a way that men are left with no option than to compete hard in every respect: to get ahead at the workplace (which is undoubtedly one of the ways to gain the attention of women), and to find a mate. Concurrently, as women themselves become successful, they expect much more of their boyfriends and husbands.
Being attractive and well-groomed is the first step. According to Euromonitor, the men’s grooming market showed a value growth of 27% in 2009. The skincare market grew five times between 2001 and 2008. Ever more men are taking care of their appearance – our research shows that it is because young women expect their partners to look good when they go out. It extends to an expectation to own an apartment before the couple exchanges their wedding vows – even if the prospective groom may be an only son who would inherit his parents’ home. It carries on to sharing the responsibility for her parents.
One would expect that spending more time at the apparel store would result in men becoming more conscious about their dress sense. Most Chinese women I have spoken with do not think so. On one hand, the clothes of young men are splashed with color – purples, yellows, pinks and greens, which suggest that perhaps their girlfriends made the choices. I believe that this is once more a happy capitulation rather than an explosion of metrosexuality. On the other hand, older men dare not venture far from the dark grays, blacks and whites – the preferred togs of those in the establishment. If we believe that these men should dress better, we shouldn’t be talking to them. We will be better off asking their girlfriends and wives to change them.
After having to compete with other men at the workplace – a place where power hierarchies result in their masculinity being accentuated, the man is happy to capitulate to this expectation. In the privacy of the home, traditional culture ensures that a man’s role as head of the family remains secure. And by ceding some of his dominance in public, the Chinese man actually secures his position in that hierarchy.
Reproduced with permission from China International Business magazine.