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Laundry On Sundaes

Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.

I’ve begun reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and I’m only a few chapters in, but what I’ve read so far has already struck a chord with me. In chapter 1, Sandberg’s description of our society’s and families’ expectations of how girls and women should behave touched on a lot of topics that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time and really made me re-examine my own experiences with such expectations.

I’ve always felt lucky that my parents have always encouraged me to focus on education and achievement. Since I was young, they have emphasized intelligence and academic success over more superficial traits. When we lived in China (until I was 10 years old), both of my parents worked demanding full-time jobs and contributed financially to the family. I always knew that it would be a given that I would also one day have a successful career and be an equal partner to my future husband. In fact, when we were discussing what I wanted to do with my life one summer early in my college years, I joked that I can simply forget about a career and find a rich husband instead. My parents did not take that well, and re-emphasized the importance for me to be professionally ambitious and independent. From all of these things, it certainly seems like I’ve grown up in the ideal environment that championed gender equality and encouraged professional achievement for me.

However, as I thought more deeply about my childhood, I began to realize that things were not quite as perfect as I had previously thought. Even though I was encouraged to be curious and open as a child, I was also often reminded of the need to “act like a girl”. I was quite the tomboy as a kid; I liked to climb trees and run around in the dirty construction/demolition sites that were around where we lived. I didn’t play with Barbies and was instead obsessed with dinosaurs and science. My mom called me a “疯丫头” or “wild/crazy girl” and often lamented the fact that I wasn’t more ladylike. One of her favorite mantras was “girls should act like girls”. Would she have objected to my antics if I were a boy? I doubt it. I remember vividly that the mothers of my friends who were boys would simply excuse their behavior because “that’s how boys are like”. So despite everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I was taught from a young age that boys and girls are treated differently and different things are expected of them.

What’s even more distressing is what I’ve been hearing in the last few years. As I entered my twenties, my parents seem to have shifted their focus on me from career success to family planning. When I told my parents that I was going to take a gap year before dental school, my mom thought that this would have been the perfect time to get married and pop out a baby. She was almost disappointed when I didn’t get engaged on our trip to the US Virgin Islands after graduation. I was shocked. What happened to the parents who were worried my grades would suffer because I had a boyfriend? Nowadays, my parents ask almost as much about my plans to start a family as they do about my future career. They bring up distant relatives back in China who are younger than me and are already married with 2 kids, as if that somehow made them more worthy than me. That I will eventually have children is not even up for discussion. Because as a girl, I’m “supposed to” get married and have children. That’s just what girls do. How am I supposed to react to this change in tune when my whole life before the age of twenty they have taught me to focus on school and worry about boys later?

And I know that I am not alone in this either. I was talking with a friend who was applying to medical school last year, and she told me that her mom said that if she doesn’t get into med school this cycle she should just get married. Really? Is this the message you want to send to your daughters who graduated from an Ivy League college with ambitions to become doctors? Is it such a crime for my friend and I to want to get our white coat before the white dress? Our experiences echo Sandberg’s own: “as much as my parents emphasized academic achievement, they emphasized marriage even more.”

I think that the plight of me and my friend have a lot to do with our culture, specifically the Chinese/east Asian culture we come from. Though the days of really explicit gender discrimination are mostly behind us, at least in the more educated populations, there is no doubt that biases against women and girls are still deeply engrained in traditionally Confucian societies where males dominate. Boys are still viewed as more valuable than girls, since they carry on the family line while girls get married into their husband’s families. Many baby girls in China still face selective abortion, infanticide, or abandonment. Also, while my and many other families explicitly encourage girls to reach for academic and career success, many others don’t, seeing such pursuits as unnecessary for women. And even in families like mine, there are still certain expectations for a girl’s behavior. As I mentioned before, girls are supposed to be quiet and sweet, neat and clean, demure and submissive.

These values are so entrenched that they’re even embedded in the Chinese language. One of the highest compliment you can give to a woman is “贤妻良母”, which translates to “virtuous wife and good mother”. An ideal couple is described as “郎才女貌”, which means that the man has talents and the woman has good looks. (Reminds me of the “Smart like Daddy” and “Pretty like Mommy” onesies mentioned in Sandberg’s book) It makes me so angry just to think about it. Really? The absolute best thing a woman can be is a good wife and mother? Why don’t I get to be the talented half of the couple?

I’m not saying that these challenges don’t exist in western societies. Of course they do. I simply wanted to think about them on a personal level and view them through the lens of my culture. But I also feel that these issues exist in a much deeper level and on a larger scale in China and other east Asian countries. I remember coming to Canada when I was 10 years old and seeing how it was okay for both boys and girls to roll around on the grass and play with caterpillars. How the girls too could be loud and rambunctious and not be scolded by their parents or teachers. It was at once shocking and liberating.

And I’m sure that that was part of why my parents decided to move our family to Canada, to take me away from some of the more blatant sexism in Chinese society. I give them credit for that, and for a lot of other things. Like allowing me to climb trees anyway even when I get my dress dirty, even when they don’t approve of it. Like supporting my education from day one until now. But I think this also goes to show that even when on the surface my parents seem to unequivocally support female empowerment, some of their actions and words are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermining their message. And just because they’re not as overt, it doesn’t mean that they’re any less damaging.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this whole thing right now, and I don’t know if I ever will. But one thing is for sure: if I ever have a children, I will try my hardest to hold them to the same standards and expectations regardless of gender. If I have a daughter, I won’t be telling her that it’s not okay to behave a certain way simply because it’s “unladylike”. I will encourage her to achieve her biggest dreams, and if marriage and children are not a part of those dreams, that is okay too. It’s been so frustrating for me to deal with the expectations of my family and society in general, and I would never want the same for my daughter.

But I believe that simply realizing the hypocrisies and mixed messages I and other women have been receiving regarding what we should prioritize in life is the first step towards combating them. I’m fighting them as hard as I can, not just for myself, but so that the next generation of women don’t have to. After all, no girl should be told to “act like a girl”. Because being a girl or a woman means being strong, independent, creative, ambitious. But perhaps more than anything, being a woman simply means being true to yourself and the choices you make in life, without the threat of feeling like you are any less worthy of your womanhood.


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