Feminism meets cultures

I grew up feeling that society, whether Vietnamese or American, disapproved of women who spoke out against unfairness in status.

Quynh Nguyen

I’m a first generation Vietnamese-American woman. So that means I get some odd questions and comments from time to time, like “Asian women are so hot because they’re subservient,” “Vietnamese people are so hard-working,” and my all-time favorite, “Gosh, your English is very good.” I don’t mind these comments, even if they’re brought out of the blue. Honestly, I love talking about my culture and demystifying that Asian mystique.

Vietnamese people are hardworking, yes. My English skills belie my cultural heritage, yes. Female subservience? That’ll take a column to explain.

Imagine, if you will, what it’s like to grow up in a traditional Vietnamese household. Your parents are immigrants who narrowly escaped with their lives in a boat the size of your dorm room and are working hard to raise children who will make the most of the opportunities they have here in the United States. They’re poor, speak English as a second language and are not afraid to go to school as adults with full-time jobs. They have nothing, except the Vietnamese culture and tradition that neither poverty nor Communism could take away. That culture is passed onto the children, without modification or room for questioning.

So, I grew up in a household where men were more valued than women, where boys had special privileges over girls, yet both boys and girls are expected to achieve equal heights in success. This wasn’t overtly taught in terms of “women are inferior, and are unable to do things as well as men can.” It was more in terms of “Men are highly valued and therefore have special privileges that society gives them. We do not defy society. Women can achieve as much as men can, and are expected to contribute to the family like a man. But if women get the same rights as men, society will fall apart.” If a woman is to have any standing at all in Vietnamese society, she has to perform female gender roles of maintaining a household, a job and a marriage without complaints (which, to some, might appear subservient).

At a young age, I had to prove my worth for any support or recognition, whereas my brother got golden-child status simply because he carried a set of family jewels. No child likes to feel devalued, even if that devaluation is innocent and without malice. So, I grew up fully aware of the Vietnamese society’s view of women and with the tools to cope with and counter those views. I grew up unafraid to work hard – eager to do “men’s work” to prove I was equal. But I also grew up feeling that society, whether Vietnamese or American, disapproved of women who spoke out against unfairness in status. I recognized the disparities, but felt unable to do anything about it.

Then I discovered the feminist movement in my sophomore year of high school. I had heard about it throughout my youth – bra-burning and voting and all that – but to hear that it was still going on was news to me. Before, I couldn’t fathom any current needs for the feminist movement to continue. To me, American women had a ton of rights compared to Vietnamese women – what more could they ask for? I soon learned, as I got older.

I started to interact more with people outside of my culture, outside of school. I started to work and volunteer at a hospital. During one of my volunteer experiences, I was accosted by a hospital staff member who grabbed me and kissed me against my will. I reported the experience to a security officer, senior administrator and then human resources. End result: He was issued a reprimand but was able to keep his job. There was no physical evidence, so they took his word over mine that he didn’t do it. Human resources proceeded to regard me as a litigious loose cannon, a woman who brought that sexual harassment upon herself, then wanted to sue for it, and they wanted me out. Color me surprised and disgusted.

It then dawned on me that the male-dominated Vietnamese society was not a fantasy society I could step in and out of whenever I went back home. Male-dominated society existed everywhere, even here in American society. The disparate treatment I got at home seemed like decent preparation, if anything, for the perils of womanhood in a male-preferential society.

I worry about the future of women’s rights and feminism. Not just rights to a safe abortion, but rights to respectful treatment in the media, society, workplace and home. The crappy depictions of women in the media, I fear the most. Those irritated by feminism would be loath to give Lindsay Lohan/Paris Hilton types the right to vote. How long until we see smart women holding their own in media? Young women are growing in reflection to that imagery. In spite of being raised in the most progressive and liberal years of this country, young women seem to take a backseat when it comes to taking care of their own rights. I hold media partly to blame.

Will it take a backlash, a revocation of those rights, to reawaken the feminist movement? I think it will require frank dialogue, elder woman to young woman, for the new generation to understand where feminism came from and where it should lead. I would still be a gum-smacking, hair-twirling brat if it weren’t for the sobering tales my mom would tell me about abused Vietnamese women. She always told the stories with the subtle message “this can happen to you.” Something like that really makes a person sit up and take notice.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]