Love & Connection

The “leftover women” who are also passionate and successful


SMT leftovers

The successful single women in Asia are called, “The Leftovers”.

If you are single, highly educated, successful, and are still not married by age 30 — you will be considered as the “leftover women”. And I suppose, the divorced women or single mothers will be at the bottom of that “scrap-heap”.

My favourite (sarcasm) paragraph from The New York Times article on this subject is –

“Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don’t realise that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.”

A family friend once advised me, out of genuine care and concern, to not appear too intelligent in front of the men I meet. She was worried that I would not be getting marriedagain anytime soon. And she kindly reminded me that time is not on my side. That family friend added, “You have a pleasant face. So, it should not be that difficult for you to attract someone even with your situation. Don’t be so picky. A woman should not be too smart for her own good.”

By “too smart”, she meant that I should not reveal that I actually know stuff so that the men would not be intimidated by me. I should subdue myself and my standards in order to make myself more appealing to them.

By “with your situation”, she meant that I have a baggage, i.e. a daughter. Hence, I do have more odds stacked against me if I wanted to snag a mate before my “use by date” ends.

I no longer take offence to such talk from old relatives or well-meaning family and friends. They are the product of the previous generation’s thinking. Their main concern for their children is to be married well, and that the children would have offsprings of their own. Hence, they would wish the same for me. They do not want me to end up alone. Or, in this case, become a leftover.

I am not going to lie and say that it has never crossed my mind — that I would be left all alone, and die as an old maid. I was petrified that I would never love again. With my biological clock working against me, it would be highly unlikely that I’d be bearing more kids anytime soon.

That was my Fear speaking. Fear of the unknown hazy future. Fear of what if my family and friends were right. It was the Fear which was ingrained into me since childhood by the older generation.

I thought that there was something seriously wrong with me. For a while, I must have appeared rather desperate – eagerly seeking someone to love and want me, grasping onto anyone who gave me the time and attention like a starved abandoned puppy. I had tried too hard, or appeared too cool. Either way, it was disastrous.

Then I realised that I only wanted someone in my life to numb the loneliness. I used to detest being alone. I used to equate being alone as a failure. A failure to be desirable. A failure to be wanted and loved. A failure to co-habit with someone.

Over time, I learnt that wanting someone in our lives, and knowing how to love someone are two very different things. 

Therefore, my reason for wanting someone in my life has changed. It has less to do with filling an empty space next to me, but more about filling up the emptiness within on my own. It is about living a fulfilling life, and wishing to share it with someone. Naturally, it has to be with the right special someone.

What I no longer wish is to be with someone for the sake of just being with someone.

I also no longer wish to be burdened by the old traditions which are not relevant to me. Don’t get me wrong here. There are many wonderful attributes of our Asian culture and its traditions. However, not all of them are applicable to the person I am, or who I aspire to be. Especially, to the lifestyle I lead.

I had to learn to separate what’s right for me from what’s not, and to recognise what works for me and what does not — no matter how infused they are into my ancestry. The hardest part was forgiving myself for not upholding some of the traditional ways of doing things. In the beginning, it felt like some sort of betrayal to my Asian heritage. But becoming a better Asian, and individual should not stem from holding onto a tradition that no longer serves a real purpose. It is about becoming a better human being in every sense of the word.

We should all evolve with the changing times.

I still cherish and nurture the traditions which are valuable to me. For instance, filial piety, the importance of family, respect for elders, and etc. I still regard marriage as an important and beautiful institution. Therefore, I do not take it lightly even though my definition of marriage may not be as traditional.

There are far worse things than being alone — it is being with the wrong someone.

These days, some marriages resemble more of a “merger and acquisition”, where two people agree to pull their resources together so that they can create a successful lifestyle. However, it seems to be more about struggling to make payments at the end of each month than about making a real life together.

Today, women are successful, and independent. They can earn their keep and buy their own place. They no longer need to combine their resources with someone else in order to live out their desired lifestyle. Hence, being with someone has come to mean different things to different women. For some women, having someone is about companionship, but not so much of having a real life together. Their partners accompany them to several places, events, and even holidays. But they do not share a home together. There are also women who just want to have fun and not be burdened by the drama or stress of a relationship. So, they have boyfriends and these boyfriends may change from time to time. (No judging, please)

In other words, with financial independence, education and skills — women today have a variety of options. They can create the lifestyle of their choice.

Women like me have our preferences. And we should not be made to feel ashamed to have these preferences or any preferences, for that matter.

Women like me are the ones who seek more than casual flings or meaningless fucks. We value a deeper intimate connection with a Significant Other (SO), and this should not be achieved at the expense of our identity or our life long dreams. Because we would never dream of asking our SO to sacrifice their identity or goals for us either.

Yes, we may have put more effort and time on building a career or finding ourselves, because we have learnt the hard way that the only person we can really rely on are ourselves. We know how it feels – not being able to afford our next mortgage, or put food on the table to feed our kids. We know what it entails when all the financial control is held by the men in our lives and we are constantly at their mercy. We know that helpless feeling only too well. Hence, we do not want to go down that path ever again.

We have chosen to embark on a journey of self-discovery because we understand the importance of establishing ourselves. Some of us may have lost much of ourselves along the way of loving too much, or by hanging on too long, or for having been hurt too deeply. It would take a very long time for some of us to trust again.

I, myself, took more than a decade to get here — where I am comfortable in my own skin, confident in my own strength, as well as, my vulnerability.

Yes, there are many women like me. And men too. Because divorce rates are high, and marriage rates are consistently low.

So, as far as I am concerned, we are all tainted pearls.

If we look closely, we’d realise that we have been (and are) governed by our fears. Fears that were created by our past, and are compounded by each bad experience in life. Hence, we take extra care to guard our tattered little hearts lest they break into inconsolable pieces again.

For some, the word L.O.V.E has become a vulgar four letter word. A sort of chocolate-coated poison which ruins us in the end. Especially if we have been paying huge amounts of money in divorce settlements. This is how life experiences smear us, and leave bitter imprints in our hearts or minds. We would become utterly disillusioned and cynical, if we are not careful.

There is a price for everything. Even happiness and love.

As Chani Nicholas said, “Freedom isn’t free. Every journey has its cost and its benefit.”

If we had chosen to take on the career path, the cost is perhaps our love life, or marriage, or family. If we had chosen to let go of our dreams, and got married – then we bear the cost of never finding out how far we would have gone and what we could have achieved. Not everyone gets to balance work, play and kids. Not everyone gets that gifted luxury of “the right time and right place.” Not everyone can have it all. Period.

There is really no wrong or right choice. They remain the choices which have moulded us into the women (or men) we are today. Therefore, only we would understand which cost was worth bearing. Only we know which benefit is worth suffering for. Only we can decide which path is worthwhile for us.

Nothing in this life is guaranteed. Especially love and happiness.

“We are promised nothing in this life, not fairness, not equality, not respect and not even our safety. Some more than others. There is not one starting line for us all.”
~ Chani Nicholas

As a woman, I can tell you it is even harder. As mentioned earlier, even our biological clocks work against us. So, we make the best of what we are dealt with.

From the list of bad things, I chose the worst. I can say that now. I rather be divorced than be trapped in a nightmare marriage to the wrong person. I rather be ostracised for being authentic than become part of the flock that I can never fit in.

I chose the hardest way because it was the only way for me to break free and reclaim myself. Of course, I paid dearly for it all. But in return, I gained everything. I gained myself.

I no longer apologise for the choices I have to make. I no longer excuse myself for wanting more than mediocre charades. I no longer pretend to be satiated by shallow thrills. Nor do I have patience for pettiness, cruelty and animosity. The future does not intimidate me. I know I will be able to handle what life throws at me to the best of my ability. Even if I tremble and shake while doing it. :)

Next week, I will be celebrating my 45th birthday. In the traditional context, I would be classified as “fossilised pearls”. However, I don’t feel antiquated at all. For the lack of a better word, I feel liberated. These days, every living moment is a gift.

When we know who we are, and what we truly want out of life, especially when we realise how we too can give back to humanity and the community at large, without compromising who we are – our lives will truly have meaning and purpose. 

Women (and men) like me became strong and fearless because there was no other way to be. And the people who love and accept us should not dream of changing us into something less than who we are. Instead, they should try to appreciate why we are the way we are, and inspire us to become the best version of ourselves.

We are the ones with vision, because we will not be diminished by challenges or adversity. We learn and become wiser. We are not afraid to step off the curb, or dance in the rain. We can endure hardships as much as we savour life’s pleasures. We won’t hesitate to pick ourselves up, and start again. Above all, we can laugh at ourselves, because we understand what it means to forgive.

We have all come so very far. And we should never need to justify the choices we’ve made.

We have earned the right to build the life we aspire to live without apologies.

Every milestone in our lives is worth celebrating.

In truth, we are not the leftovers.

We are the passionate survivors.


This article was first published on Shirley’s website, The Art of Fearless Living, and can be read here

{Photo: Hernán Piñera / Flickr}

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Shirley Maya Tan

Shirley Maya Tan

Huffington Post blogger Shirley Maya Tan has been published in, among others, the Elephant Journal and The B-Side. A single mother living in Kuala Lumpur, Shirley writes about motherhood, dating, sexuality, identity and much more. The Art of Fearless Living is an intimate, authentic and revealing portrait of one woman’s quest to live fearlessly in our increasingly complex world.

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