Friday, February 3, 2012

Not A Girly-Girl: Being an Unfeminine Female in Taiwan

Average-looking, not slim, no makeup, not "elegant", likes to swear and drink,
has chewed betel nut, could happily be a breadwinner, talks too much and has forceful opinions.

What other gender-driven expectations can we find and destroy?     

I'm having a weird form of writer's block: I have four posts I really want to write, and I can't seem to write any of them in a clear or coherent way.

So, I'm going to tackle something else and try not to make a mess of it. I want to talk a bit about not fitting local expectations of what women should be, and how that's affected my life in Taiwan. Good news: most of what I have to say is positive!

Awhile back, I wrote a post about the pervasive, and sad,"one white hides three uglies" belief and how being, well, white changes the dynamic of what is considered beautiful. This from me, someone who admits openly to being average looking, at best (and generally OK with that). I also wrote one on being a curvy white girl in a country full of slender Taiwanese women, and how while the comments and noticeably unspoken comments are made (or not made, but known), that being a Westerner shields me somewhat from the fat-shaming pervasive in Asia.

A quick side note about fat-shaming of Western women in Asia: I still get it, but not nearly as much as women of Asian heritage - whether or not they were born in Asia - do. Fun fact: while a lot of people might say that because it's more acceptable to comment on weight in most of Asia, that the fat-shaming would mostly come from locals, I've found that it mostly comes from other expats. Sure, the occasional blabbermouth obasan will say something, but the real reviling of curvy Western women seems to come from (not surprisingly, I'm sorry to say) expat men. I avoid most of it by not hanging out with people like that. Works wonders!

Back to the main point - any woman who lives in Taiwan long enough - or not even all that long - notices that expectations and behavior norms are stricter in Taiwan than in the West. This is also true for other Asian countries, and in most cases it's stronger. It was pretty awful in China, Brendan reported rampant sexism in Korea, which is usually a good sign that there are strict gender-based expectations of demeanor and behavior, and don't even get me started on Japan. India, for all of its issues regarding women's rights, seems to be a bit more accepting of great personality and even size variance in women. But let's stick to Taiwan for now.

Part of it is an expectation of girliness, not unlike the girlie-girliness discussed in this piece on Zooey Deschanel: not so much that women are expected to love polka dots, Hello Kitty, cell phone charms and glittery things, but that it's not considered odd for grown women to do so, and it's more comment-worthy if a girl or woman doesn't go in for that stuff than if she does. Examples: an older office worker I know of  through a third-party anecdote who has a cubicle full of Hello Kitty figurines.  Others in the office did not think this was odd. At all. Someone else I know of spoke of a mutual female acquaintance, saying "she's very smart, very interesting. She doesn't like Hello Kitty or bling-bling or anything like that." I could imagine "she's not a girly-girl" being said about a woman in the West, but not a comment along the lines of "she's not interested in cartoons or glitter". Huh? Why would she be?

But that's not all of it.  Some other gendered expectations I've noticed - many of them obvious but not often meditated on:

- The whole "elegance" thing. Women in Taiwan are not necessarily expected to be girly, but if they're not girly, they should be "elegant". There's an adjective in Chinese that I feel sums it up best: 典雅 or "classically elegant"- think in terms of the classic beauties of Chinese history. My observation of what this seems to entail is what you'd more or less expect: slim, pretty face, accomplished and articulate but doesn't say much, smiles and laughs but doesn't giggle, very clean and tidy, puts up with a lot of crap and rude behavior without comment.

It seems to me that as per Taiwanese culture, a woman can be girly, or she can be elegant, but those are the only two things she can be. "Quiet" and "nerdy" are also acceptable to some degree. Anything else - loud, outgoing, funny, aggressive - gets filed under "不懂" -  quirky, strange, unfeminine, coarse, or in my case, "it's OK, she's American. They're like that." Aggressive, however, is accepted once you reach a certain age.

I do feel back home that while, yes, there is pressure on women to be feminine, whether we're talking "girly feminine" or "elegant feminine", but you don't absolutely have to be. If you are a bit hard-nosed, a total brain, aggressive, funny, coarse, a bit difficult, a bit crazy but not in a girly way, a gamer, an emo, take on "masculine" hobbies, or are just not domestic or a bit sloppy, that's OK too. Some people might judge you, but your personality won't get filed under "I don't understand that at all".

My two anecdotes: out to dinner with a group of friends, some of whom did not know each other. I tell a story about a kid I saw wearing a t-shirt that said "Certified Muff Diving" on it, and had to explain that in Chinese. A friend (Taiwanese, female) said "Oh, I like it!". Foreigners thought it was funny. Locals laughed but looked slightly embarrassed. This particular friend is super awesome and quite attractive, but not "elegant" in the expected way. She's said she doesn't quite fit into Taiwanese society. This same friend met another friend's girlfriend - whom I like quite a bit, and I admit is the epitome of 典雅 - and said "wow, she's like the girl every Taiwanese man wants to marry". I said "really? Or are you exaggerating?" "No, I don't think I am."

The other: I had a similar discussion with a student while driving back from Hsinchu. He gave a mutual acquaintance as an example of a strong woman - who happens to out-earn her husband, to boot - as an example of someone who flouts this expectation. He was right in that she doesn't fit a lot of expectations of women in Taiwan (earning more than her husband, for one) but she is nothing if not elegant, with perfect hair, stylish dress and good taste. Even the expectation flouter doesn't flout this expectation!
- Women don't drink much and they certainly don't drink Kaoliang or whiskey.  They absolutely do not chew betel nut. I drink whiskey and will drink Kaoliang if offered, but generally do not seek it out. When I attended a year-end party for a student's company, people were shocked that I not only drank whiskey, but drained the glass. When I go out with friends, the only women drinking whiskey are white (usually just me, though). I've had local friends over to drink, and the women tend to stay away from the whiskey: some don't drink at all, others stick to wine. Even if I'm just having beer I often get "wow, you drink a lot!" after, you know, two beers. Some women don't drink at all, but I do believe that's more that they can't physically handle it than an attempt at being more "feminine".

As for betel nut, when I ask students who has tried it, a few men inevitably raise their hands, but not once - not even once - have I encountered a woman who has tried it (or will admit to it), although I bet I'd find a few more down south if I were asking there. I've tried it three times. Twice of my own volition, once because it was offered to me at some temple parade.

- While plenty of Taiwanese women have careers - and good ones at that - it is much less common here for women to be breadwinners, and even less common for women to be OK with being a breadwinner.

My anecdote for this one: we're at a somewhat chi-chi bar before leaving for Turkey, chatting with two local friends. My husband had just had the worst of the visa issues he encountered hit him (which is why he changed jobs) and I hadn't even heard the bad news yet. I felt these were good enough friends that he could deliver the news in front of them, and he did. At some point I blurted out "You know, if they're being such ****s, seriously, quit. Just quit. I can support us. I make enough. You'd need another job for the visa but I can handle the money end. But we can talk about that more at home" (I generally don't make it a point to talk finances in front of friends but  it was a very stressful bit of news).                     I thought nothing of this until months later when one of the two friends - the guy - mentioned me on Facebook when linking to a blog post in Chinese about marriage. Roughly, he referred to me as "my gutsy foreign friend who even said she could support her husband, I was so shocked!". Later, again: "When I heard you tell your husband that he could quit and you would earn enough money, I knew you were a person with guts."

What is interesting about this is that it clearly shocked him enough to bring it up months later - not once, but twice - in a way that showed that he was clearly bowled over. Not so much that I mentioned finances but that a wife would tell her husband "it's fine, I make enough" and be perfectly OK with being the primary, or even only, breadwinner, even for a period.

I just can't imagine any of my foreign friends registering that deep level of shock at such a concept.

- Less swearing, and not loud! I swear a lot in all languages (my current favorite is Taiwanese. So expressive). 'Nuff said. This kind of plays into the "you can be girly or you can be elegant, or you can be nerdy or you can be shy. When you hit about 45 you can be aggressive" - none of these tropes has any room in it for women who swear, talk frankly, drink whiskey or chew betel nut. As for loudness - it's OK to be talkative - "chatty" talkative is also acceptable - but "loud" (as in volume or size of reaction) is not quite so accepted.

A final anecdote: a local female friend of mine who is quite loud, both in talkativeness and volume. She's told tales of dating woes - although my assessment of some of these stories is that the guys sound like Grade A Douchebags. She's also said that most people advise her to a.) use whitening cream and b.) be quieter and "more like a woman". As in, shut yer mouth, woman! People have actually told her that the problem is that she is too talkative, too outspoken and too loud. I find that sad.

I'd add some others, like filial obeisance and being humble, but those are expected of both genders. I'd add "expected to want to have children", but then the expectation that all women should want to become mothers and something is wrong with those that don't is quite strong in the West, too, as I'm finding out. It's surprising that this expectation is still so strong in a country with such a low birthrate, but I get the feeling that a lot of people have convinced themselves that most Taiwanese women who don't have children remain childless because they haven't found a mate (there are quite a few singly thirty and fortysomethings), not because they don't actually want children.

It's worth noting yet again that it's not that these expectations don't exist in the West, it's that in my experience they're more flexible, and there's room to flout them or only follow them to a minor extent. There's more room to be yourself, even if "yourself" is not very "feminine" at all, by conventional definition. Some idiot might call you "unfeminine" or try to shame you in some other way, but he'd be the exception, not a social trend. While women in both Taiwan and the USA complain that having "unfeminine" personalities often costs them dearly in the dating world, I'd say that Taiwanese women seem to be facing a bigger challenge.

Where does this leave me - and a lot of women like me? Not just my attitude (and to some extent my looks - not slender, either dressed like a dork or in jeans, no makeup,  air-dried hair) but my entire demeanor and personality - is coarse by these standards. My personality: casual, a bit loud, likes to swear, drinks whiskey

So,  I'm a total boor, a bull in a china shop (total cliche and not quite a pun, but close). I have to admit it, sometimes, in Taiwan, I feel like a slightly oblong, porous brick among women who are more reminsicent of smooth marble sculptures. A garrulous moon rock placed next to a Lalique vase. A giant square plopped down on a page covered in sinuous waves and lissome lines. A big ol' corner sticking out to disrupt the qi in a room with otherwise excellent feng shui.

It's like this: imagine sitting on the brown line MRT, wearing a sweater and jeans, hair a bit messy, maybe a zit or two, and noticing the woman across from me: shiny black hair, eyes closed, smile just so, cute little white headphones, tidy, well-fitting jacket. Elegant in a way I am not: I could get the haircut, the jacket, the headphones, but those are not really the issue. They wouldn't change much; the difference is too fundamental. I could varnish up the outside, but my insides would ooze through the cracks. I hope you like that mental image, by the way.

And yet,  it's not bad.

I mean that. It's not bad at all. Sure I feel a bit oblong or outsize at times, but what foreigner in any country doesn't? Sure, I feel "unfeminine" in Taiwan in a way I don't back home, but that's OK - was that feeling really all that important to me anyway? Is it really so bad to just be who I am and accept that I'm "chunky sweater and jeans girl" even if I'm not wearing a chunk sweater and jeans that day? I'm used to sticking out. I don't mind sticking out. I've even learned to use it to my advantage in the classroom. Being loud and weird is a great starting point for building a kind of rapport you'd never expect.

It's surely in part - possibly mostly - because I'm a Westerner, but reaction to my personality among students and acquaintances has been generally positive.

The friend I mentioned above who was clearly quite shocked by my willingness to be the chief earner, even temporarily? His reaction was not one of disgust, puzzlement, righteousness, anger or condescension, or any of the myriad reactions one gets when discussing gender politics: it was surprise, yes, and a bit of shock, but ultimately there was admiration there, too.  People seem surprised that my drinking habits are more in line with Taiwanese men than women, or that I've tried betel nut, - seen as the ultimate in coarse behavior in Taipei, but while that might get filed under the "不懂" section of female behavior, there isn't a lot of judgment.

Obviously my friends like me for who I am so I don't need to go into what they think of me. Students, however, are under no obligation to like me, but even in the most candid feedback I don't hear words along the lines of "rude", "coarse" or "loud" (I never hear "elegant" or "lovely" either) - I hear "funny", "energetic", "so different" and "interesting". Arguably I am not "so different" in the USA, where my own special brand of weird is not that weird at all, but here it really does seem to fall outside the norm of female behavior.

I think the most candid assessment came from a student who, not surprisingly, is a psychiatrist. I mentioned that my cat is "clearly insane" and he made some joke that pets have been shown to be influenced by the personalities of their owners. Later in that class I made some weird, dramatic joke that involved a lot of hand gestures. Student: "Now I see why your cat is insane!" He didn't mean it in a bad way, though.

So really, the issue isn't other people or repercussions of not fitting into expectations of femininity in Taiwan.  The issue is internal - it's about not fitting in and being farther outside the norm of gender expectations than in my native culture, and learning to be OK with that, possibly to even embrace it. If you do that - and believe me, I'm trying to - the confidence you can project will deflect any judgments that could possibly come your way. That can be nothing but good.

I can get away with this because I'm a Westerner, I know. A lot of Taiwanese women aren't in a similar position to be able to turn their unfemininity into a strength and be admired for it rather than told to be more "ladylike". Some are lucky, some break the mold. Many more don't. Many - most even - arguably don't want to, but I feel for those who do want to but feel they can't, or that they could, but the price would be too high.

You see, another friend and I told the talkative woman mentioned above not to listen to fools who would tell her that being "quiet" and "sweet" would cure her dating woes. "Listen to us," we said. "We're loud, we're weird, we don't wear makeup. We're not super skinny and we have a lot of opinions...and both of us have boyfriends. She [me] is about to marry hers. If you try to be someone you're not, and try to be this quiet, sweet girl who isn't really you, even if you find a boyfriend that way you won't be happy, because that's not you. Be who you are and the right guy will love you for it."

"But you don't understand. Taiwanese men are just like this! You can do it but it is hard for me."
"You CAN do it, though. You CAN be who you are and expect people to like you for that."
"I can, but..."

She can, but....

And that's just about where it's at.

Super fun update!  Someone left a comment saying "maybe you could go to the gym and lose weight....Then you could get a local boyfriend and that would make life meaningful." Hee hee. I'll go ask my husband now if I can have a local boyfriend because clearly my life is not meaningful now. Honey...?


Nick Herman said...

You are great. Love your attitude.

E.C. said...

Jenna, I like your blog. You are more Taiwanese then a lot who live in Taiwan.You do have a lot excellent observation about the culture there. It will help those people especially Taiwanese or A.B.T. see the culture and society in different angle. Hope to meet you one day in person