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When Women Uphold Sexism
I challenged my grandmother—and she listened
Winnie Kong
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In traditional Chinese culture, good girls are expected to be submissive, gentle, quiet, and sweet. My grandmother tells me that being a good Chinese girl has its perks: I’ll be chosen by a man, who’ll make it possible for me not to work. With this support, I can devote my time to raising my children.

But I don’t want to be treated like a doll or to feel like my only purposes in life are to please my husband and have kids. Unlike traditional Chinese culture, which praises patriarchy and limits the power of women, I believe that women should have equal economic, political, and social power.
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So how do I negotiate between my family’s cultural values and living the life I want as a feminist?

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To Catch a Husband

For both my parents and grandparents, a woman’s biggest achievement is getting married. Although they also emphasize the importance of an education, my grandmother, in particular, puts a lot of pressure on me to look and act in specific ways to get the “right” kind of man.

“Winnie, you’ve got to stop talking so loud and making a fuss,” my grandmother tells me. “Boys like girls who are quiet and don’t argue.”

This makes me wonder: Why can’t I be myself? I get really hyped when I’m talking about issues I’m passionate about. What if I don’t care what boys like? By saying that guys like women who are gentle and quiet, she is expecting me to suppress my true self.

Is being argumentative a bad thing? I only argue when I am standing up for what I believe in, for example, social justice for minority groups and women. I consider that an admirable quality. But that quality is regarded as masculine and dominant, so it’s frowned upon. To me, this reinforces the notion that Chinese women should be submissive.

My grandmother tells my brothers: “If your sister can do it and she’s a girl, then you should be able to also.” This sends my brothers the message that men can and should be superior to women. And the other message is that it would be humiliating for them to have achievements only equal to me, a mere woman.

Woman Warrior

When I read The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston in English class, I was enlightened by how Kingston finally found her own voice as a first-generation Chinese-American woman. Part autobiography and part Chinese folk tales, Kingston’s book describes how she is shaped by the women in her life. She conveys how women themselves often emphasize these traditional values, thereby contributing to the oppression of younger generations of women.

Kingston has to navigate between traditional values and her own belief that women should be respected and treated equally. In doing so, she encounters some contradictions in the woman she most admires: her mother.

Kingston’s mother serves as a figure of courage and wisdom. But at the same time, her mother also devalues her by reinforcing sexist, stereotypical views about how women should behave.

This reminds me of my grandmother. Kingston’s mother was a doctor back in China, and my grandmother was an accountant. While both Kingston’s mother and my grandmother held empowering careers in a country that values men more than women, they also both hold sexist views that hurt other women.

My grandmother would often tell me about her successes and how proud she is of her accomplishments, from going to school to working in institutions dominated by men. Yet she still expects me to adhere to an old-fashioned standard in which a Chinese girl is timid and quiet. It is ironic how she puts me down without realizing it. She is someone I look up to, but at the same time, I am conflicted about whether she is really inspiring.

On the topic of role models, Kingston inhabits the character of Fa Mu Lan, a mythical woman warrior based on her mother’s “talk-story”—a mixture of Chinese history and myths. Fa Mu Lan leads an army to defeat a corrupt baron who terrorized her village. Her secret weapon is a sword that operates based on her willpower.

In Kingston’s own reality, the baron is represented by Chinese immigrants with misogynistic views whom she knows from the California city of Stockton, where she grew up. Compared to Fa Mu Lan’s sword, Kingston’s words are her weapon—with enough willpower, she can break tradition and make change.

image by YC-Art Dept

Reading Kingston’s book made me realize that I wanted to use my voice to advance social equality for Chinese and Chinese-American women. Before, I suppressed my opinions in the face of my grandmother’s sexist comments. With the “respect your elders” ideology in mind, I was drowning in an ocean of unspoken words. Now, I realize I can show respect for my grandmother and her point of view without agreeing with her.

A Difficult Conversation

Kingston’s memoir gave me hope that if I am persistent in speaking up for what I believe in, I will eventually create change.

So, when my grandmother recently told my brothers, “If your sister can do it and she’s a girl, then you should be able to do it,” I didn’t stay quiet.

“Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean that I am less able than my brothers academically.”

My grandmother responded, “Winnie, you know I don’t mean it like that. I know you work very hard for what you want to accomplish.”

“But you’re saying that just because I’m a girl, my brothers should be able to match my accomplishments no matter what. You’re devaluing my accomplishments and boosting their self-esteem at the expense of mine.”

Her expression went blank and her mouth closed. After a moment of silence she said, “Winnie, you know I respect women and think that they are just as strong as men.”

“How do I know that when you tell my brothers that just because they are men, they should be able to do anything women can? You’re being hypocritical.”

There was a pause after that. “I was raised with my parents telling me these things; after a while, I just got used to it,” she said. “I didn’t know that they would hurt you.”

There was a moment of silence, and then I told her that I appreciated her a lot for listening to me.

I Won’t Be Silenced

When I went to my room, I reflected on our conversation. “I was raised with my parents telling me these things; after a while, I just got used to it.” My grandmother’s words stood out to me like a candle in a dark room. Like Kingston’s mother, my grandmother was just passing along these traditional misogynistic Chinese values without realizing they are oppressive.

Finding the courage to speak up against my grandmother’s sexism helped me realize that traditions aren’t easy to break and even harder to change. Compared to more traditional Chinese elders, my grandmother opened her mind to consider why I struggled with her words.

Being raised in a culture where women are constantly undervalued, I understand that it is hard to find one’s voice and speak out against sexism. Society has not put women on equal footing with men, and those inequalities are even more pronounced in China than here in the United States.

It is extremely important to me that women both here and there not be silenced and held to narrow, oppressive expectations of delicate beauty and submission. It’s time to stand up against that rather than accept it.

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(NYC-2018-03-05)