It started with cooking.
I used to complain as a kid when my mother asked me to help her in the kitchen instead of brother. I would yell sexism, to which my mother would gently agree — but quietly tell me that despite equality in political and economic arenas, there is still this general expectation for women to be the homemaker.
Of course, my naive self who was determined to be the “strong, independent and modern woman who won’t bend to social pressure” protested against that idea. I wouldn’t mind doing household chores, but there was no way I was doing it just because I am a female.
That tiny rebellion persisted and spilled over to other aspects of my life, especially in the standards of beauty that I so righteously believe were arbitrary rules imposed on women by men. Then there were also the many judgments imposed upon girls who were too untidy or who sat with their legs too wide open in public.
“You’re a girl, sit properly!” I often got told.
I refused to follow. I crossed my legs like a man; I wore pants underneath my skirts; I didn’t voluntarily wear a dress until 15; I didn’t know how to put on makeup until I was 20; I was astounded when I learned about “Brazilian wax” in an American teenage novel when I was in high school.
Some of the expectations, however, did sink in, especially when I observed how my female role models navigated their lives. Like my mother, these women are smart, successful and outspoken but at the same time, respectful of their husband’s role as the head of the family. They may know their boundaries and demand their rights, but generally they played the supportive role in a family hierarchy, being slightly submissive to the husband — especially in public.
At the same time, I saw them fighting for our rights as the next generation of women. Women’s names are generally left unrecorded in ancestral documents, but my parents’ and their siblings began changing that. My parents gave me a first name that follows the ancestral naming conventions for my generation even though historically, only men have to do so (it’s the ‘Zhai,’ if you’re wondering.)
I couldn’t figure out how to navigate the contradictions. You see, I grew up in the capital of Malaysia, a bustling metropolitan where urban middle-class women are generally afforded the same rights as men in voting, obtaining job opportunities, freedom of movement and accessing educational opportunities. Women of this standing were encouraged to pursue their ambitions and become successful.
But the Asian culture is also very traditional, which means there is a caveat to our ambitions. As successful as we are outside of the house, there is still this notion that women should be the homemaker and play the supportive role in a family hierarchy headed by the men who make the major decisions.
With rapid economic progress in developing countries bursting into globalization, the expectations heaped on Asian women seem more contrary than ever. The whole world is brimming with opportunities for us, but the old way of thinking is still indoctrinated through the way we were brought up, deeply embedded in our culture and through popular media. The conflicting perspectives can prove to be a tough act to balance, particularly for those who’ve lived abroad.
My conviction to oppose tradition certainly didn’t last through puberty.
When I started noticing that girls who look pretty, groom themselves and behave “like a girl” were more popular, doubt crept in. This was compounded by my – rather unfortunate – consumption of Korean and Taiwanese romantic dramas in my teenage years.
In those dramas, the female lead is always poor, innocent, dumb, and great at some form of housework. They always eventually excel at some job too, albeit at a less threatening position relative to the men who are for some reason always heir to some huge company or fancy hotel chain.
Successful ladies with leading jobs in corporations are always the scheming third wheel who never get the man. They’re never portrayed as good cooks or placed in domestic settings. They’re just really good at their jobs.
I instinctively knew that it was wrong, but some parts of it still seeped into my fragile psyche. I was conflicted: Obviously I wanted romance in my life, but does that mean I had to cull my ambitions and be what an Asian women is expected to be?
Then I learned about feminism when I came to the United States three years ago. I saw how equality is emphasized even if it isn’t always implemented.
But what struck me the most was that discussion about these issues even took place.
For instance, I was intrigued by the famous anti-feminist Phyllis Schafly. Why would an entitled American woman be against ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment that legally prohibits discrimination against women? Contrary to the 60s feminists, Schafly argued that women had a duty to take care of the children and men be the breadwinner of the family.
There was also the whole issue of sexual assault. When a woman shows a lot of skin, is it her fault if she gets assaulted? I grew up thinking that it is, being told that to dress modestly is a form of self protection. But I never asked the question: Why isn’t it the guy’s fault? Isn’t rape wrong in all circumstances? What about a woman’s exposed midriff says touching her is alright?
It felt enlightening to entertain these questions and think of women’s rights from this point of view. All the thinking brought me back to my old ideas about feminism — but this time, with more nuance and some Asian flavors. Afterall, two decades of culture cannot be shaken off so easily.
I became one of the “sandwiches.”
“Sandwich” is a term coined by my friend from China, defined as women brought up in relatively conservative environments subsequently “brainwashed” by Western ideas, but still holding on to some bastion of the past values. She told me about the general expectation she felt women in her country were subjected to: Study hard and don’t date until you get a good job and when you do, get married. Promptly.
“Well, do you just get a man to appear out of nowhere?” she asks. She, like me, wonders too — with our crazy independence and beliefs about feminism, how will that change when we go back home?
But I also call myself a sandwich and not a fully-converted feminist because I realize that I crave in some part, due to familiarity, the traditional Asian family structure that I grew up with. It took dating non-Asian men to make me reflect that I had inherently expected men to be in the protective role, the stronger one in the relationship while I play the supportive role despite enjoying full respect.
I almost want to be the modern, strong Asian woman who is supposed to be both the successful career woman and gentle supporter of the household. Is that still feminism? I wasn’t sure it was what Schafly meant by “anti-feminist” either.
I still don’t know the answer. I asked my mother, and she told me that in our culture it may often be that the men will make the decisions at the forefront — being the macho ones — but women will demand their rights behind the doors. The tug-of-power maintains the balance.
It sounds a bit like an Asian-flavored feminism or it might just be the form feminism takes when it crosses over with strong, traditional cultures at the verge of change. It felt similar to the feminism portrayed by My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a movie I keep returning to whenever I think of “strong women” in my culture.
It’s a movie about how Toula, the female protagonist who grew up in a traditional Greek-American family felt stuck with her father constantly hounding on her to marry a “Greek man.” But she rebels. She learns the computer. She wants to work at her aunt’s travel agency instead of her father’s restaurant. How to make that work? Toula’s mother and aunt, two well-dressed middle-aged women with strong personalities began scheming.
“We must let Costa think this was his idea,” Toula’s mother suggests. Costa is Toula’s father.
So Toula’s aunt goes to her dad, helpless.
“Oh woe to me, business is bad,” she says, asking Toula’s dad what she should do because she doesn’t have anyone to work at her travel agency.
The women pretend to brainstorm for solutions. Costa thinks hard. He slaps the table.
“Ah, I have your answer: Toula will go to your agency,” Costa said.
The women cry out “we can’t believe this! You’re so smart!”
Costa laughs, points to himself and says, “You see, man!”
The women secretly rejoice while letting the man have his glory. It might yet the best example I’ve seen so far that portrays feminism in a context I can relate to. But as my part of the world rapidly changes, culture will continuously be redefined; and my understanding of it will change along with time and influence from whichever continent I set my foot on next. It’s all a learning process.
In the meantime, this shall remain my favorite quote:
“The man is the head, but the woman, is the neck,” Toula’s mother told her in the movie. “And she can turn the head anyway she wants.”
Zhai Yun Tan (Nat) currently works for The Christian Science Monitor and lives in Boston. She is a 2015 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We are so excited to include her story in our series on self acceptance.