Tuesday, June 17, 2014

My Journey to Feminism

So let’s talk about the f-word, no not that one but the other f-word: feminism. It comes with many different definitions, perspectives, and agendas. Here is mine. 

Like most births, no one truly remembers that moment of becoming into being but once something is given life it is hard to snuff it out. So is my journey to feminism. 

I would like to say that I was a docile child: always pleasing my parents, doing as I was told, a paragon of Asian filial piety but the reality was I was quite bossy, bullied my younger brother of four years, picked fights with kids at school because I did not know how to express my anger, and had screaming fits directed at my parents about 3-5 times a year. The cornerstone of all of this was “fairness.” It was unfair that I am born female and my brother male so he gets to be coddled while I wasn’t; unfair that I am the eldest and had to break all the rules while my brother had it easy; unfair that other non-Asian kids get allowance for doing nothing at all while I got nothing for doing a gajillion chores at home (this only improved slightly in high school where I got $10 a month in the 1990’s); unfair that we were so poor that McDonald’s was a treat for good report card grades (Thank god for that! My parents never let me develop addiction to fast food); unfair that we don’t get to drink soda (Kudos to frugal Asian parents!) unless it’s the holidays or someone’s birthday celebration; unfair that I wore hand-me-down clothing despite being the eldest kid, unfair that I’m short; unfair that our house had cockroaches and mice that crawl around at night casting shadows via the night light, scaring the crap out of me and turning me into a slight insomniac; unfair that I’m being compared to the genius kids of my parents’  friends who always got great grade and is going to be a doctor. The list can go on and on and on. So one can see that while I was obsessed with the righteous definition of “fair” I was also an angry kid.   

Surprisingly this concept of “unfairness” never prompted me to be a feminist yet because I was a huge nerd, actually enjoyed school quite a bit, and did well enough academically which engage and challenge me at the same time. The closest I ever got to feminist studies was in college while pursuing my biology and East Studies (with a concentration in Japanese) majors that I decided to take a Japanese women writer course that took care of 2 birds with 1 stone: liberal arts and writing requirement. I saw how “unfair” it was within the Tale of Genji, that Japanese noblewomen were treated as sexual playthings to Prince Genji but the “unfairness” never touched me because it was in the past and everything was romanticized in my quaint naïve adolescent mind. 

But oh how I read! Since I learned to read, I devoured books from the library like a starving person at a buffet because it was a way for me to escape from growing up in a poor immigrant family where we had no means to own a book. The library was a magical place that houses an infinite number of friends, possibilities, and adventures that expanded my small world to beyond my imagination. My readings should have tipped my off about my feminist tendencies because while I like fairy tale with beautiful princesses, magic, love, and happy endings, I especially loved stories with strong female characters that save the day because I imagine that one day I too can be the main character and hero.

My journey to feminism didn’t proactively metamorphosized till coming back to the East Coast after a sales rotation in San Francisco. Maybe it was the liberal west coast air or that everything is better out west, or just that I have a lot more free time to peruse the internet in an office job setting, thus I began to read. I’ve always been an avid lover of reading, with my taste shifting from sci-fi fantasy of childhood to actual interest in non-fiction writing. As I kept reading I noticed that the articles I gravitate to are 1- usually about inequality (socio-economic, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, gender, etc) and 2- about women. The more I read the more I can’t stop but from 2012 onward there was also a dramatic shift in American culture and politics. Mitt Romney’s “binder full of women” snafu was repeatedly called out/made fun of, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler emerged as the funniest comedians around, America’s love/hate relationship with Hilary Clinton is still very much love/hate, Miss Representation documentary exploring the damaging relationship between women and media, and Sheryl Sandberg stepped out from being a TED talk darling to a Lean In machine. All of this I devoured ferociously. 

At the same time I was also looking at my career, or maybe lack of. Despite being part of a rotation “program” the company was in an industry of mergers and acquisition, downsizing, and lackluster pipeline. I look at senior management and all I see are “pale frail male” aka old white men. I do not see role models for me as a woman or an Asian American. This made me question if I am cut out for slugging it out to climb this corporate ladder (or jungle gym or whatever metaphor people like to use about career management.) It has been shown time and time again that if one does not see someone like them in aspirational roles, the individuals have a hard time aspiring.
At the same time I found a group of college female friends who have been traversing this feminist journey that was similar but separate to mine. One is a PhD candidate for Japanese literature (specifically Chosen literature (written Koreans living in post-World War II Japan)), another taught English abroad for a few years and has joined the corporate world (she is also the one who wordsmithed “pale frail male”), one is a publishing house editor, one is a pharmacist, and one is a lawyer. All of us through different walks of life are suddenly converging organically to want to talk about being a woman, the opportunities and obstacles arising from our gender, and what does it mean to navigate through personal and professional lives. Albeit some of us are much more passionate about the topic, we all were finding a voice that resonated with each other. We would have ginormous email chains that would break Gmail because there would be over 100 emails with 800 word essays about our views on a NY Times or Atlantic article, personal happenings, opinions about Lean In (oh what battles we would have about this!), a Buzzfeed list about women or people in their 20s/30s, or academic analysis of gender inequality. Such an insular sisterhood that was analytical, self-aware, and amazing! 

Bolstering this digital connection was my own real life connection with Asian American women in the city I was living in. I have joined an Asian American professional organization upon moving to my 4th city and sought involvement with the organization, which didn’t come to fruition till in 2013 when the local chapter decided to launch a women’s group within the Asian American organization. Working with a team of talented, dedicated, and amazing women we worked throughout that summer to officially launch the Asian American women’s program via a panel of Asian American women small business owners and entrepreneurs. Countless hours of coordination, venue planning, logistics, naming the event, and marketing drew a crowd of over 80 women and men. I was so caught up in the event planning that it was so gratifying to learn so much from amazing women who have forged their own path by taking a place at the helm. 

Since then my journey continues and I am learning much about myself, the world, and others. Assuming more leadership in the Asian American women’s program has grown my sense of leadership, made me question is the program mainly to provide a “safe space” for Asian American women (or should the program go beyond to really encourage the dialogue between men and women about gen inequality instead of having one-sided monologues?), made it harder to meet and date a man who can be truly be my life partner, realized my sense of self in different ways, and pushed me in ways I didn’t expect to be pushed. 

I know that “women” and “feminism” is a hot topic right now. It’s amazing how my journey has gotten me here and I am truly grateful that I was not involved in women’s study during college or younger because I would burnt out by now. My sense of “unfairness” would have erupted into anger that is fueled by youth and personal righteousness that would quickly die down due to exhaustion and also personal sense of lack of impact or ability to change the status quo. It’s been amazing to see so many women come to terms on their own in this mass journey to feminism. Yes the whole world is gearing up for election 2016 despite the fact that it is 2 years away, yes it is a media sensationalization at its finest, yes it is trendy to be a feminist (look at Beyonce!) but I hope this is not just a blip in time, that the current dialogue will continue to grow a future where not all men aspire to be CEO’s and not all women want to be housewives. That our potential in life is not inhibited by the gender given to us, or at least the hurdles and barriers will be lowered so that regardless of being female or male we can realize our greatest potential for impact, happiness, and harmony.