How are we at the end of March already? Just this morning I looked out my window and saw crocuses. Crocuses! Aren’t they a sign of spring?
I’m finally rid of the dreaded flu (or as I’ve nicknamed it,”Bubonic Plague Round 2”), and I thought I would celebrate this by doing another instalment of my wee mini series for Women’s History Month. If I’m honest, originally I was tempted to do all the posts on key figures in Canadian herstory; Canada is where I’m from, it is the country I will always identify myself with and it is the place I will always be homesick for.
I have to admit, as a “Chinese” kid living in Canada in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t identify much with that part of my heritage. My parents left China before the immigration influx in the 90s so growing up, I didn’t have many Asian friends. I spoke English at school, in public, and even to my cousins. The only time I spoke Shanghainese was to my mum.
My dad had 4 sisters, and he constantly reminded me how they and his mother were treated like second class citizens after his dad died; this was why we moved to Canada, because girls weren’t afforded the same rights and privileges that their brothers were. So though it annoys me when people ask where I’m from and won’t accept “Canada” as a legitimate answer, the role of women in China has always kinda intrigued me. I loved Amy Tan’s “Kitchen God’s Wife” and “Joy Luck Club” as a kid and they helped me understand my own mother a little better. I might identify more with my Canadian self than my Chinese self, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find Chinese culture interesting.
China has had an appalling track record when it comes to human rights and equality, with ridiculous ideas like the “One Child Policy” skewing the gender balance in the later 20th century and causing a lack of women in my generation. These special and privileged male children are now complaining they can’t find wives because China’s family planning policy killed most of them off! Both ironic and tragic, right?
Women were meant to be seen and to be lightly entertaining, reasonably intelligent but not too much so as to be considered challenging. Girls were not often given a formal education. My mum was one of the lucky ones but she was raised with her male cousins, almost “like a boy”. She wasn’t the eldest nor was she a boy so she was allowed more freedom than most. Do you know what has happened to many of the pampered boys born during the One Child Policy period? In 30 years China’s policy has caused a huge gender imbalance, with 30 million more men than women aged 20-45. Not only are these young men entitled and have little concept of their own privilege, but they are helpless. They have been waited on hand and foot by their parents, the sole heir to the family name and they can’t even wash their own clothes or dress themselves. They are directionless. They have never been taught to question authority, to form independent thought.
Xuē Xinran is a contemporary of my own mum’s, a journalist and a voice for women’s issues. My parents had read her book “The Good Women of China” and given me a copy whist I was at uni. I fell in love with her writing straight away. From 1989-1997 she had a radio programme in China called “Words on the Night Breeze” about women’s stories which inspired her first book in 2002, and I swear it will make you cry like a baby. She wrote about the women who phoned in to her show, their relationships with themselves, their families, their partners, and their children. She wrote an absolutely heartbreaking story of a mother and daughter who were trapped during an earthquake that had me sobbing. These were victims of abuse, gang rape, and ”honour” suicides. Many had never experienced anything close to equality, and yet they were strong and they were survivors.
In her columns for the Guardian, and in her later books (both fiction and non fiction), there was an element of exploring the uneasy truce between societal perceptions and the personal lives of Chinese women. “Miss Chopsticks” was published in 2007 and this is where I was first introduced to the mishandling of the One Child Policy and its fallout. In 2004 Xinran set up the charity “The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL)’ for those children born in China and adopted by western parents, to create a sense of understanding.
The personal lives of women during and after the Cultural Revolution were not considered important, but she gave them a voice. Sometimes Western society gives us a skewed sense of the struggles women face in countries where they not only experience our own concept of misogyny, but are considered as second class citizens. For many, no one had ever heard their stories before.
As for me, I’ll be asking my mum and my aunties about their experiences. Because like the women whose words Xinran has shared, I know that their stories have never been heard either. Much as I am a Canadian through and through, it it weren’t for these amazing Chinese women in my family, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.