Having Chinese ancestry and growing up Asian comes with several truckloads of trauma. It’s worse for females, a lot due to the inherent chauvinism and misogyny in the Asian cultures, and I’ve long been sick with how blatant and yet “unremarkable” the inequality between the sexes has been. Finally at a point in my life I’ve learned that any stories can be sorted into one of two piles: empowering and disempowering narratives, I feel like I’m finally justified in looking at all the crappy “moral” stories and traditions from my childhood, the ones telling women and children that they were lesser, less smart, less everything; I can finally kick them in the shins, and say, “I knew, I always knew you were shit.”
This post is not for anyone who wants to defend those traditional stories that defend the status quo; that only men are fit rulers, and that women and children should stay modest, silent, unseen. Anything and anyone who tells you that you are less or better than another, by “virtue” of your sex, birth order, colour, or heritage should be questioned. These lies are all the projections of insecure little bastards rigging the “rules” of society around them for selfish advantage, and truth is, thousands and millions of people, usually ones who would also benefit from the delusions of superiority, have fallen for this nonsense for too long.
Men went: “yes yes, of course we are superior and smarter and stronger and lords over ourselves, and everyone else is our property”, and women went: “yes yes, I am lesser, stupid, uneducated, shameful, and I should give way (or be killed)”. It was the victim-and-abuser relationship played out on grand scale, between two halves of the population, and then replayed between castes, between classes, between races and between sectors of society. The extreme devaluation of women and children yet lives, and not just in Asian culture anymore; Americans need not look beyond the “Quiverful Christian” cults to see these attitudes within their own midst. As for continued racism, I shouldn’t even have to tell you where to look.
We are surrounded by stories and narratives telling us how little we are worth. Women and people of colour are going to recognise the truth in this statement before the light-skinned men do. In most movies women are chattel and reward for good deeds done, racial minorities are backdrop, people without agency, meant to be rescued, or occasionally playing the Magic Negro, still inferior to the white (usually male) protagonist. Oh, say the ignorant upholders of Moff’s Law, movies are “just entertainment”, they say, which actually makes it worse when they can’t even cast Asian actors in the roles of Asian characters, instead rope in Emma Stone or Tilda Swinton (and I love Tilda Swinton, but come on).
I’ve been dwelling a lot on the spiritual aspects of storytelling recently. Stories are never just stories. They are guides and markers for what is possible, and they demonstrate the admirable values worth nurturing within oneself. It is indescribable what it’s like to grow up with thousands of stories but where few of them have protagonists of one’s own race and gender. You have no problem emphathising with any of the protagonists, of course, especially if they have other qualities you connect with, but children can start looking at their own eyes, skin and hair colour and wonder why the books and shows on TV don’t feature people like themselves more often.
My child has asked me why she cannot be blonde. I’d long anticipated the question, but the question still breaks my heart a little. She should have no wish to be blonde, but the media is saturated with blonde heroines, such as they are. (Small victories: At least she has yet to run into old Chinese didactic tales of female children needing to give way to male ones. And at least she wasn’t given a birth name that was chosen to anticipate the next, male child–I’m talking about my own Chinese name. And yes, it hurt to find out. I go by “Janet” for a plethora of reasons.)
I wrote this because I needed to acknowledge how difficult it was in my childhood to navigate the BS I was fed by the culture around me. I didn’t like the moralistic stories taught in school. I didn’t like hearing how my father grew up eating meals before his sisters did, just because he was male. I didn’t like the crapola stories about females and juniors giving way to sex and seniority, external authority, and senseless rules. I saw through and hated most of the local government propaganda, including the brainwashing about family and nation building. I didn’t feel that I needed to give way to males in a group conversation. I said “thank you”s in response to compliments, when I was told it was more “correctly Chinese” to deny all compliments. (What utter, self-disempowering bullshit it is to deny one’s own strengths and talents!)
I struggled with all these stupid, unquestioning, esteem-damaging narratives and expectations all around me even when I couldn’t explain why at the time. I just escaped into fantasy books and stories, stories that had no didactic lessons beyond courage and compassion.
Looking at these childhood hurts and cuts, I can now go, “Wow, that was screwed up.” With a bigger vocabulary now, decades of hard experience, and my activist warrior self scarred and armoured from countless online debates and lessons on intersectionality, I can gaze back upon the journey so far and wonder if that had been the higher plan and purpose all along, to get hurt as a child so I could recognise, understand and parry the disempowering cuts and thrusts as a female adult. (Note to Higher Self: WHY DID WE SIGN UP FOR THIS?)
But the truth is, the wounds were still wounds, and they were often gotten when no one else was in my corner–that I knew at the time, anyway. (The Internet didn’t exist yet, and it always felt as if I was the only one fighting against mindless traditions and rules.) I grew up suspicious and hating adults and authority–because in my experience, most of them were stupid, bullying, inauthentic, hypocritical, and part of an oppressive system (this is still true in part).
This ultra-sensitivity around disempowering beliefs and practices has been gift and a curse. As a kid, you’re isolated, short for words and respect, and generally seen as an ignorant trouble-maker for calling these out. It’s not common (and was even more uncommon in the past and in a conservative society) to have one’s soul age acknowledged. For the traditional Chinese, it’s unthinkable that a young’un can have more wisdom than your senior bigot/racist who just happened to survive to dementia. (Thanks again for making it clear in your pecking order, Confucius!) I was an angry child–and no wonder–because I found most adults condescending, infantilising, and dishonest. Trying my hand at writing a memoir recently , I had to stop because I found it was story after story of me being doubted and accused of exaggerating the adult misbehavior or incompetence I’d witnessed around me.
I had to stop because I’m still in disbelief how much a kid can go through growing up and still survive. I should be thriving–we should all be–except lately I keep feeling my inner child beside/in front of me, showing me all her boo-boos, and I don’t know if I can fix them. I probably can, in time, but after a week of fever and migraines and wondering why I’m remembering old stuff, all I’ve been wanting to do is to hug my own daughter and hope old cycles will not be repeated with her. I’m also learning how to heal ancestral hurts, and it’s going to be a big job.
Maybe though, just maybe, it’ll get easier with time.