Thursday, December 3, 2015

Out of Range

This week seems to be my week for reacting to the ideas of others...I don't do it particularly often so I don't feel bad about doing it twice in a row.

In this case it's a Taiwanese woman who moved to Europe and writes about feeling stifled in Taiwan and not wanting to return (a country that, despite my rant a few days ago, I do call home and have found to be a good place to live, though we'll see how long that remains true).

And here's the song that underscored this post.

I was locked into being my mother's daughter
I was just eating bread and water
Thinking 'nothing ever changes'
and I was shocked
To see how the mistakes of each generation
Will just fade like a radio station
You just gotta drive out of range.

My thoughts on this, already written up on the Facebook thread where I found the article (and edited a bit for clarity on a blog format with no context):

I do think she's over-romanticizing life in the West (I have spent very little time in Europe but everything she says could have been said about the USA, if someone were over-romanticizing life there), but I get her point. She is likely shielded from the worst of Western culture, which shares a lot of the same problems stemming from over-conservatism as Taiwanese culture, simply because she is not a part of that culture. Just as I find life in Taiwan somewhat freeing, exactly because I am not Taiwanese, so I'm not beholden to their cultural expectations of people, or women specifically. 

I agree with her that expectations placed on 'your place' in society, with so much emphasis on your background, and expectations specifically placed on women, are stricter and more difficult to navigate in Taiwan if you don't fit the mold. Certainly I've felt the 'man must approach the woman, who is preferred to be
溫柔, and must be the breadwinner while the woman looks good and bears children' is a thing here.

But I'm not sure she's right that the West is soooo different. 

It's true people tend to care a bit less what you do or who your family is, and it's true that they are less likely - though not entirely unlikely - to openly judge women's looks or men's earning power (or differentiate the two expectations by gender), honestly, Western men DO judge women, sometimes openly! And there IS a big expectation to conform to 'pretty girl culture' - I felt it in college too and as an eternal 'not so pretty girl', I can absolutely tell you it affects your social life. Perhaps in Taiwan the guy makes a comment about your weight. NOT COOL, whether or not you are actually fat, but in the USA the guy doesn't make any comment at all...he just doesn't call you if you don't fit a culturally-expected mold of 'pretty and slim'. Even if he would have otherwise been eager to continue going out with you if you were just that much more attractive. Is that really much better? 

In Taiwan your mother criticizes your looks - in the USA your mother thinks you're beautiful but if you want to go out to a bar or club with your friends and aren't pretty, the guy at the door finds any excuse not to let you in.

In Taiwan perhaps your friends comment on your skin, hair etc. but in the US if you have both a vagina and an openly expressed opinion, you are fairly likely to be the subject of online harassment and trolling, or, not quite as threatening but also annoying, having men comment, in a seemingly 'well-intentioned' way, 'helpfully' explaining basic concepts to you that you have already referenced and clearly understand (yes, we call this 'mansplaining', and yes, it has happened to me. I just don't publish those comments). Or - and this has also happened to me - having guys try to tell you what you should write about, as though they have some sort of say in what you choose to publish online.

And we DO have social expectations - I felt some members of my family didn't treat me like an adult until I married - it showed in little things like being included in Christmas cards to my parents even though I was in my late 20s and lived on another continent, which abruptly stopped being a problem after my wedding. So far people have been basically OK about our decision not to have kids (though I do occasionally hear a stray judgmental comment about people like us), but I can't even express the social pressure I feel in the US because I'm openly atheist. It's like I murdered everyone's children, just because my (lack of) religious beliefs differ! The snarky comments from family etc...they wouldn't make such comments about being from a single-parent family but they absolutely will if they don't like your belief system. 

It's true that US few will comment on a man's earning power (some will - I just don't talk to those people), but there is this weird expectation that you just always have money, and if you don't, it's somehow your fault...even when it's completely not your fault. You may meet a few retrograde thinkers who expect the man to be the breadwinner, but more often than not it's a simple blanket judgment that if you're scraping by, it can't possibly be the fault of a problematic system that now elevates the wealthy while pushing down the middle class and poor by denying them key opportunities. It's because something is somehow wrong with you. And if the profession you love pays well that's fine, but if it doesn't, that is also somehow your fault and you're a failure no matter how good you are at it, just because you don't earn enough money. And gods help you if you are in a job people are expected to do cheaply or for free because they 'love' it (like, oh, teaching, where "teachers aren't in it for the money" is a ridiculous excuse to not pay teachers enough money).

And it's true that while gender discrimination in the workplace is as illegal in Taiwan as it is in the US, it's much more common in Taiwan (at least that's what Taiwanese women tell me, and I believe them), even as women have made greater inroads here in industries such as finance than they have in the USA. I also seem to be on a roll this week in talking about my former employer, but I have to say sexism was something of a problem there, too, with inappropriate comments about personal relationships and teacher-student interaction made more than once by the owner to various coworkers of mine.

But...that doesn't mean there is no gender discrimination in the US. Although I know this was not intentionally orchestrated (yes, I do know, as well as anyone can), I couldn't help but notice at my employer in the US from 2004-2006, that all of the back-office 'support', secretarial and administrative work was done by women.
So, yeah, I absolutely get her point. And it does bother me that even the really good, nice, educated local guys I know in Taiwan occasionally come out with a sexist humdinger (but then in the USA that happens too). It does bother me that more than one of the more progressive guys I know in Taiwan say it would actually bother them if their wives earned more than they did. It bothers me that one declined to support his wife in her argument with his mother over the 'cry it out' vs. 'hold and nurture' styles of caring for babies, because "it's not my business, that's between them and for the women to figure out."

And also meet seemingly 'nice' guys with these views in the USA. I have real-world experience with loving, progressively-minded married men with children who, despite supporting equality, still let their wives do most of the housework (and not because the wives 'want to', though they'll claim that's the case). 

Considering all that, I'm not sure the author would feel that much different if she were actually from a Western country. The idea that people who move abroad and like it don't like it because the culture suits them better, but because their 'outsider'-ness allows them an element of freedom that being a part of neither culture would.


Girl in Taiwan said...

As a Taiwanese-American in her mid-20s who grew up in America and had a somewhat more liberal mother, I have to side with the original Taiwanese author. It is much, much more freeing in the west for a young woman. You make a good point that as the foreigner, you are not held to the same constraints as native citizens and that's it's easier to romanticize a foreign culture. However, your American counterexamples aren't as limiting as those the other author gave.

Her post struck a chord with me because I was also raised by a single mother and I was really put off when she said she got singled out for it growing up. That's terrible. I grew up in a predominately white area and no one singled me out for being from a single-parent family. My mother felt bad I didn't have a father figure in my life so she was very lenient with me. She didn't judge my boyfriends on their social standing (at least not to my face) or harass me about my weight (I am thin-average for Americans but probably fat and too tall by Taiwanese standards). I didn't have Asian friends growing up and when I finally was introduced to other Asian-Americans, I was surprised by how conservative and critical their parents could be, just like the author's mom. My white friends' families were not like that.

Of course there is conservative culture in America too, but generally non-immigrant families who grow up near cities or around cities are more liberal and give their daughters more freedom growing up than their Asian counterparts. The author's mom sounds like aunties I've met in Taipei.

As a female, I consider myself very lucky that I was born in the U.S. I didn't realize how stifling it could be until I visited Taiwan and China and met more Asian women. There is way more emphasis placed on a woman's looks in Asia, at least if you are of Asian descent. In the West, it's rude if you negatively comment on someone's weight and appearance to their face. And we in the West promote sayings like "finding the beauty within" and "beauty isn't skin deep." In many parts of Asia, it's not like that at all.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Well, obviously I can't know what it's like to be an outsider to my own culture. And I do think you have really good points.

I'd just say that as an American woman who doesn't fit the beauty stereotype in America (which absolutely exists) - wide Polish face, wide Polish bum, wide Polish waist, honkin' nose, frizzy, wavy hair, wide Polish shoulders - I do feel there are expectations and there is a lot of criticism and stifling of those who don't 'fit in'. But all I can say is that that is my experience as a white American who didn't fit in. I wouldn't know what it's like for others.

I guess I also think "it's bad to say anything negative to someone's face", while good, does tend to promote saying things behind people's backs (which I also know happens in Asia!) and I'm not sure being quietly rejected and excluded for not fitting in/not looking right is better at all than being told to your face what's going on. I'd almost rather just know. At least then you won't have to be all "is it my personality? Or are they just shallow?"

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

...because part of me feels like, if someone mocks my looks, skin, weight etc. to my face, I can just dismiss them as someone not worth listening to. "Shallow ****. I don't need to give him/her any more of my valuable time." Then you know they are the problem, not you.

But when nobody does that, but you sense that somehow you don't measure up, you never quite know whether to look inside yourself and reflect on your personality, or to dismiss them as the garbage people they are.