Tag Archives: East/West

Day 9: Defining a Woman by Her Cover

20 Feb

A few days ago, I ran into this posting on facebook on my friend Mirza’s wall.

Photo credit: Mc Diamondog on Facebook

Whatever the message you got from above, it somehow reminded me of my friendship with some of my friends who are Muslims and have worn headscarfs for several years of their lives.

Before I lived in Singapore, I had never had a close friend who was Muslim. I’ve only lived in small towns without much diversity, and even during college, the closest interaction I had with Muslim population was the Imam at the school (who was called “Muslim Chaplin”) that I attended a lecture of. I mean, I was interested in Islam and the culture, but I never had much exposure, part of it because I did not have any friend around me who was able to share her stories.

Then when I started grad school, I encountered people from way more diverse Asian cultures (and I thought America I experienced was diverse), and I had the honor of developing friendship across nationalities, cultures and religions that I had never interacted with before. Now, some of my closest friends are Muslims, and I am so grateful for the relationships.

Although what I saw from my friends in headscarves at first was not “oppression, submission or terrorism,” I know that there was a type of orientalism-like curiosity from my end (a la Edward Said). After all, my perspective looking into the wide range of Asian cultures was probably not too different from that of an educated yet ignorant Western person, hopefully without nasty prejudices against certain religions and cultures. I was more careful in getting to know my friends who were in headscarves, because I saw them with women who were determined to express their religious identity, and Islam was all I saw from the first impression.

But then, what happened during the process of “getting to know each other?”

It was simple. We became friends. We talked about celebrities, had dinners and snacks together (avoiding pork, of course), shopped going through sale racks, watched Friends and movies together, talked about boys and cried over some of them, and worried about our futures because we did not know what the heck we were doing by being in grad school. In sum, we did what friends did. We did what all 20-something year old girl friends did together.

On the way, I automatically got to learn so much about Islam and what it means to them, of course. I fasted a few times for Ramadan (not the whole month though, yet), broke fast at 7:14pm Singapore time, and celebrated the end of the holy month together with really nice food. I have woken up to the sound of the first prayer in a morning in Yogyakarta when it was 3-something-am. I had several long conversations with a friend before she decided to take off her headscarf, and I was happy to support her decision. I have been to the mosque during prayer with my friend while we were out and about, and watching so many people devoted to God breaking away from their regular day was something so moving. My friends all became a part of enriching experiences, and learning about a religion that I had almost no exposure previously was a wonderful experience, because I was getting to know an important part of their lives.

What I’m trying to say here is this. The whole political discourses over what women of certain cultures and religions (in this case, Muslim women) should wear and not wear, depending on which countries they live in, seem completely absurd to me. After all, who made the grand fear discourse that a society is in danger, because of certain cultural forces? And who has reproduced such language in order to keep the society in panic by scapegoating women’s attire?

As a non-religious person who has been in and out of different religious temples for experience’s sake, I wear whatever I feel right in. I sometimes wear jeans and t-shirts, and other times wear a dress. I refuse to be ordered around in terms of what I wear, because I’m a woman who decides what is good and comfortable for me to wear. I exercise autonomy over my body and over my decision, because I refuse to be treated like a child. And I’m sure that my girl friends that I talked about earlier, the ones that I have done all the “regular girl things” together, enjoy their autonomy as full adults who are capable of picking up the shirts, headscarves, or whatever the garments they want to wear every morning.

After all, we all can define ourselves in various ways, regardless of the types of clothes we wear.

why such a fuss about chinese mothers…

23 Apr

Over the past several months, one person uniquely seized my attention by “bravely” bringing up the righteousness of seemingly oppressive education/training method/manual of children. Amy Chua, as many of us remember her as the “tiger mom” or the ridiculously smart, successful, scary, brave, and not to mention beautiful mother who (therefore) deserves to be a rightful education and social critic of the Asian communities in a Western (American) society, speaking on behalf of ALL Asian heritages (and Jamaican and Ghanaian ones, apparently). Exhausted yet by my elaborate and irritating usage of adjectives?

I claim here that I never read her sensational book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (although I saw the Korean translation version that was named “Tiger Mother” recently in a bookstore- Maybe I should get the original version soon), and you may ask me the legitimacy of me writing at all about her perspectives. So I’ll mainly focus on her piece on the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which seems to be reflecting more or less of the same stuff that she wrote in her book. Also here’s another interesting article from Slate Magazine that exposed me clearly to her views.

You probably noticed by now that I’m severely irritated by her blunt honesty on her method’s abusive nature. I couldn’t help but reflecting on my own experiences, growing up as another child from a typical Asian family where education is valued no matter what and success is defined as going to a top university and getting a “good” (socially acceptable, acknowledged, and high-paying) job, and perhaps having a happy family with a partner who is just as “successful” as you, along with other “Asian” values. I also have had a decent exposure to Western education and American values, which are some of my fundamental parts as well. Perhaps the way that I have been raised is not that different from her, but the difficulties that I’m having are clearly raised whenever I see the Korean education market that is filled with scarier versions of Amy Chua.

First thing first. The reason why I don’t appreciate Amy Chua is exactly her bluntness as she says that the tiger parenting is “the” way for successful parenting which she more or less defines as the Ivy League (or to similarly prestigious Univ) admissions. I’m not a grown up yet (though I feel like I should be soon) and may not know how to define success and how it’s like, but I do have a lot to say in defining successful parenting or success as a whole in such a way. I was fortunate enough to go to a prestigeous University in the US, and my parents take it as a great pride. Although it was against my will to go to a small liberal arts college, I do appreciate the choice that I got to make for the 4 valuable years of my life, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything, because of the education that I obtained (which was a liberal arts education in the end) is a valuable asset for my growth. BUT it is a big mistake if I (or my parents) ever think that I am a success myself, simply because of my degree. I certainly never thought or felt that way, especially in recent years. I sometimes felt extremely insecure and lost, because I now do not have the security of the university, but only the reality that I would have to figure throughout my life. The “helicoptering” of the parents can never direct anyone to succeed, simply because many of the parents don’t even know what it is about.

Secondly, I just hate the way that she treated her children (the same way that the younger version of her was treated by her parents). I once thought in my life that my mom was the most scary person in the world, but she never called me “garbage” or anything else that was derogatory towards my individuality and personality. But she would call my certain behaviors in such names. She never forced me to do better in something I was never good at (like math, the subject that my father has been teaching for past 25 years, or piano, which I took lessons for 8 years but was never appreciated by me back then). She never humiliated me in a way that I don’t deserve her love or respect. When I wanted to stop doing something, we reasoned through and sometimes struggled with each other, but that what a parent and a child always do, nothing abnormal. All in all, she respected my choices, even the most ridiculous ones like going to the US for high school when I was a teenager and didn’t know much about anything, including my parents financials. The biggest flaw that I see in the tiger parenting method is exactly this. The parents don’t consider their children as individuals that are growing and therefore in needs of learning how to make choices. The little ones are  just the smaller version of themselves that they were never able to become. Now the tigers have the second chance of making their avatar becoming someone that they coulda, shoulda, woulda been.

The reason why I’m so wired up about this single phenomenon is because of the recent deaths of students from the top technology university in South Korea. Sometimes I really wonder what education is, and if there is any education left at all in this part of the world, being a pessmistic individual I am. The entire society feels like one big tiger mother to me, whenever I face these heartbreaking stories. The 4 youngsters, the success and genius on their own rights with various stories (ages around 20) have killed themselves in recent 4 months.

The main reason was the cut-throat over competition within the unversity (for example, making the students pay more money for every GPA point that the student failed to achieve compared to the last term), which doesn’t encourage and reward the students’ academic excellence and creativity, but pushed and punished students severely if they failed. As you can imagine, they have never been mediocre in their lives until they got into this very institution where all the “No.1’s” have come. Now the entire country is talking about how many of the unversity’s policies were wrong, and how the university president should be kicked out as he was the one who was pushing this cut-throat policy (he himself is a product of the US education since secondary education). But the greater problem is that the institutions which are supposed to educate young minds, whether it be a family or a school, are failing miserably in what they thought would be the best way. Were the students “successful?” Sure, in Chua’s sense, they were in the best university as the future engineers who would solve the global environmental issues or create the next iPhone. They are the ones who will create the future that our older generation could not create. But 4 of them already took their own valuable lives away, before they were able to experience what “success” that everyone was talking about. What was education, that is so valued in Asian society, doing? Was it present at all? Or should the 4 lives be really blamed for their weaknesses, as they were not “strong enough” to endure the torture in the name of success?

Granted that there has been a lot of criticism regarding the “Chinese” or “Asian” or “eastern” way of educating children, maybe her frank advocacy doesn’t deserve some of the harsh criticism (usually from the “Western,” “liberal” perspectives). However, the peculiar aspect is that she herself is not acknowledging the fact that she has benefited from the Western methods as well as the Eastern one. She actually had the extreme previlege and challenge (and so did I, gratefully) of being exposed to two seemingly clashing education methods, and she probably struggled to get the best out of them. In the end, she has become a very successful product of them, part of it because she became more resilient to dealing with variety which isn’t always the best environment for every child. But perhaps, the educational paradigm which Ms. Chua advocates so fervently may not be the central case at all, as she “humbly” talks about her soon-to-be ivy-leaguer daughter, Sophia, basically saying, “Oh, she did everything herself, I didn’t do anything.” Perhaps she’s conveniently reflecting the “Asian” virtue of modesty? After all, this is what other Asian parents would do, including my own (who aren’t Asian-American at all, but who has a daughter just like one which is yours truly).

Now here, I silently laugh at the WSJ Pole, asking, “Which style of parenting is best for children? Permissive Western parenting or Demanding Eastern parenting?” After all, there are only two different worlds… or are there?