Category Archives: Women of China

Sex Education: Self-education

It is impossible for most young women in China to talk to their parents about sex and reproduction: “do you want to tell me about sex?” a woman from Tianjin asked her parents at age 13. They threw the question right back: “do you want us to tell you about sex?” The conversation ended there, and she had to work out the rest for herself. Chinese parents are too shy to discuss the issue with their daughters. So how do Chinese women learn about sex?

how chinese women learn about contraception
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Chinese young women conduct their own sexual education to increase agency and enable personal choices

“My parents told me they found me in the street”, said Elena Cui. Another woman’s parents still maintain that they found her “in the garbage can”. Some were told “fairytale stories” about where babies come from: her parents met, fell in love, and then there was a baby. None were told the truth at any stage, and most still haven’t discussed sex or reproduction with their parents.

Amy Ma spent much of her young life confused about sex. Her parents would reach over to cover her eyes during kissing and sex scenes in romantic movies, a physical act embodying the whole family’s mutual embarrassment. Amy is one of many girls whose parents would chidingly remind their daughters not to do what they saw on screen throughout childhood. But horrifying rape scenes in war movies went uncensored at home and in school, so Amy grew up wondering why rape seemed okay if consensual sex wasn’t.

Mothers advise girls not to “do things” with boys because “it” is bad — very bad — for girls. Daughters are left to connect the dots between emotions and sex, then sex and pregnancy — links that are never stated, only implied in highly coded language. Girls are expected to understand through guesswork and implication that an unplanned pregnancy (ie. outside wedlock) would be the end of their education and careers — careers that the whole family is anticipating and working towards.

After learning how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off: “do you know how to use a condom?” 

Contrary to (mainly western) feminist paradigms, for Chinese women the advent of birth control is not automatically synonymous with “freedom”. Within the collective cultural memory, family planning holds the cultural weight of painful state control, as legislation to reduce family sizes in the early Maoist period was enforced through forceful means. Rather than the spectrum of possibilities opened up by various kinds of contraception, without sexual education, only a few huge choices are made apparent: choose to have a non-sexual relationship; choose not to have a relationship at all; or, risk pregnancy and (commonly) the secret abortion that would result from it. Only a curious few will make the leap to a fourth choice: contraception.

Chinese women learn about contraception
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Parents are willing to put in only minimal effort to educate their children, often neglecting opportunities due to embarrassment about the subject matter. The woman from Tianjin remembers finding condoms under her parent’s pillow when she shared their bed in the nineties, and blowing them up like balloons, much to her parent’s humiliation. They never explained what the condoms were for: she put two and two together from the images on the box.

Parents sidestep the what and how questions of sex, and schools follow suit, ignoring young peoples’ educational and sexual needs and desires to the point of danger. Undergraduate Grace Zhu told me that several girls at her middle and high schools got pregnant at age 15 or 16. Students in Grace’s school had never been given any sexual education beyond learning about genitalia and menstruation from pictures in textbooks. She had no idea contraception even existed until attending university. Grace’s sexually active classmates could not tell their teachers or parents, and rarely told their friends until after a pregnancy had been terminated. They’d go to abortion clinics alone or with their boyfriends, having raised the money to pay for it by asking school friends for cash, and then take time off school by pretending to have flu. For Grace, these stories were a warning for her to be careful.

“Privacy is a luxury. I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?”

Women in China are working to empower themselves and one another, even if their parents and teachers are not. Elena Cui, a graduate student in Beijing, often travels to visit her boyfriend who studies in Nanjing. Before she travels, her mother will offer up a warning. “She doesn’t tell me about sex, she doesn’t say ‘you can’t have sex with your boyfriend’, she just says ‘you can’t, it’s not good for the girl’.”

Elena feels her mother is hiding something, because she repeats this vaguely threatening aphorism regularly. Elena does her own research online, and as a result she now believes that having sex is human nature, and nothing to be shy or ashamed of talking about. She talks about it with her boyfriend. Elena was surprised that her roommate (another graduate student) had never heard of condoms or other forms of contraception before the pair attended a potentially one of a kind women’s health seminar. After the meeting, in which she learned how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off about her newly acquired skill: “do you know how to use a condom?” she asked him.

One woman who studied abroad in the US felt reassured by the friendly staff and safe environment when she got a free STD test there. She didn’t have to make an appointment, and received her results by text message. She couldn’t believe the contrast with sexual healthcare in China. Having got an appointment with gynaecologist at a reputable Beijing hospital, she was told, “we don’t do that test here”. Reproductive health services are commonly provided only to married women; single women are not expected to be sexually active. Women often find that taking action to maintain reproductive health places them in situations in which they feel their agency is restricted or undermined.

Women have to make choices about contraception
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“Privacy is a luxury,” she says. “I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?” In a hospital that does make sexual health checks available, she queued for several hours on two separate occasions, even after making an appointment. Once inside, she felt forced into what she calls “social pariah” territory, by sharing a waiting area with patients with infectious diseases. During her examination, other doctors and patients walked freely in and out of the consultation room, while still more patients peered around the door as they waited in line. A self-described “tough girl”, she doesn’t feel shame in seeking the healthcare she needs. But this kind of treatment would prevent the softer hearted from accessing reproductive healthcare.

“I didn’t know anything about sex before I came to university,” Jodie Mai tells me. “But I have done a lot of research, watched a lot of informational videos online, and talked to my roommates about it. Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex. So now, I still don’t want to have sex before marriage, but I know that it is my choice.” There is little reason to assume that institutions are changing in regard to providing sexual health education and services. But, young women are definitely asking the questions, and some of them seem to be finding answers.

My numerous conversations with young Chinese women gave a clear picture, that most Chinese women in their late teens and twenties have never received a comprehensive sexual education from parents or teachers. Without this, young women find making decisions about sexual relationships at the most granular level is still like moving boulders.

They told me that schooling around sexual education was sparse for those born in the late eighties and nineties. Their teachers refused to discuss sex, sometimes giving students as little as five minutes to memorise scientific terms from textbook diagrams of genitalia. Reproduction was a scientific subject, far removed from real women’s bodies.

For many, the teacher’s embarrassment effectively locked students’ curiosity out of the classroom. They had to find the practical information they were really interested in via other means. Most turned to the internet as teenagers, most often finding pornography and unfiltered information on Baidu pages, but sometimes finding Youku videos presenting accurate information for this specific purpose. Some learned from their parents’ sexual habits, studying the adults’ pornography stashes and connecting the dots with what they heard and saw when sharing a bedroom with their parents early in life.

“Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex.”

One woman I spoke to remembered waking up to find her parents watching porn, and later repeatedly telling them she wanted to watch “that thing” she wasn’t allowed to watch. By taking charge of their curiosity, these women have gone beyond their formal education to explore their questions about sex, relationships, contraception and their bodies. These women say they feel freer to make choices that reflect their personal values and desires. Getting past the stigma to learn about sex can be a life-changing experience for women to increase their individual agency.

Read on

Sexuality, Contraception and Challenging the Patriarchy: Lijia Zhang (Interview)

Lijia Zhang on Gender, China’s Sexual Revolution and Prostitution in Contemporary China (Interview)

Sell-by-date: Fertility and F**kability

Closer Look: Jin Xing, China’s first transgender woman 

Series: Dating in China [Part 5]

Gender Equality in China (Interview)

Can Rape Jokes Ever Be Funny? 

Closer Look: Xiaolu Guo

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

Xiaolu-Guo-Guardian
Author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo | image from guardian

Xiaolu Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author based in London. We met at Beijing’s Literary Festival in 2015, where we discussed writing techniques (she always writes by hand before word-processing, which is part of her editing process) and she borrowed my black biro to autograph copies of her books. She signed a copy of her debut book in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, for me. I wanted to buy a copy of her latest novel, I Am China (published by Random House in 2014), but the bookstore’s order of had not made it through Chinese customs due to the controversial content of the book. Guo advised me to read it as an e-book, saying she didn’t think I’d be able to acquire a hardcopy in Beijing soon.

Below is an extract from Xiaolu Guo’s latest book, Once Upon a Time in the East: A Story of Growing Up, which was published by Chatto & Windus on 26 January, 2017. This extract was originally published by the Guardian.



Some years later, after I had published a number of books in Britain, I managed to finish a novel that I had been labouring on for years. Publication was due in a few months’ time, but I began to worry that it would bring me trouble when I next tried to go back to China, since the story concerned the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and the nature of totalitarianism. What if I was denied entry because of this book? I decided to make preparations before it came out. So, since I had been living in the UK for nearly 10 years, I applied for a British passport.

I spent some months gathering the necessary documents for my naturalisation. After a drawn-out struggle with immigration forms and lawyers, I managed to obtain my passport. Now, I thought to myself, if there was any trouble with my books and films, I would feel a certain security in being a national of a western country. Now I could go back to visit my sick father and see my family.

A week later, I applied for a Chinese visa with my British passport. After waiting at the visa application office in London for about half an hour, I found myself looking at the visa officer through a glass barrier. The woman wore horn-rimmed glasses and had her hair cut short, military-style. She looked like a resurrected Madame Mao. She took my British passport and scanned me up and down. Her face was stern, the muscles around her mouth stiff, just like all the other Communist officials, seemingly trained to keep their faces this way.

“Do you have a Chinese passport?” She stared at me with a cold, calm intensity, clutching my British passport.

I took out my Chinese passport and handed it to her through the narrow window.

She flipped through its pages. The way she handled it gave me a sudden stomach ache. I sensed something bad was coming.

“You know it’s illegal to possess two passports as a Chinese citizen?” she remarked in her even-toned, slightly jarring voice.

“Illegal?” I repeated. My surprise was totally genuine. It had never occurred to me that having two passports was against Chinese law.

The woman glanced at me from the corner of her eye. I couldn’t help but feel the judgment she had formed of me: a criminal! No, worse than that, I was a Chinese criminal who had muddied her own Chinese citizenship with that of a small, foreign state. And to top it all, I was ignorant of the laws of my own country.

She then flipped through my visa application, which was attached to my British passport, and announced: “Since this is the first time you are using your western passport, we will only issue you a two-week visa for China.”

“What?” I was speechless. I had applied for a six-month family visit visa. Before I could even argue, I saw her take out a large pair of scissors and decisively cut the corner off my Chinese passport. She then threw it back out at me. It landed before me on the counter, disfigured and invalid.

I stared, without comprehension, at this once-trusted document. The enormity of what had just happened slowly began to register. Although I was totally ignorant of most Chinese laws, I knew this for certain: when an embassy official cuts your passport, you are no longer a Chinese citizen. I stared back at Madame Mao with growing anger.

“How could you do that?” I stammered, like an idiot who knew nothing of how the world worked.

“This is the law. You have chosen the British passport. You can’t keep the Chinese one.” Case closed. She folded my visa application into my British passport and handed them to another officer, who took it, and all the other waiting passports, to a back room for further processing. She returned her tense face toward me, but she was no longer looking at me. I was already invisible.

Read on

‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain, Xiaolu Guo for the Guardian

Hedonism, Reproductive Health, and Fighting Repatriation: Lijia Zhang on her Debut Novel Lotus (Interview: Part 3)





Closer Look: Jin Xing, China’s first transgender woman

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I was born in China. It is in China I must be reborn as a woman.

Jin Xing was the first transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China with government approval, and the first whose sex change was officially recognized by the Chinese government.

As a boy, Jin had an affinity for dancing and soon became a ballet dancer. At nine, Jin began performing in a prestigious troupe that was part of the People’s Liberation Army – ballet has long been considered a valuable propaganda tool – and serving as a soldier. By the age of 17 Jin was the number one male dancer in China, and had risen through the ranks to become a sergeant.

At the age of 19, she started set off to start from scratch as a dancer in New York. Jin, a major celebrity in China, was nobody in New York in the nineties. But that didn’t stop her. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Jose Limon. News of her successes in New York reached Beijing, and she was promoted to colonel even though she was not serving. Her career took her to Rome, where she learned Italian, and she toured Europe before deciding that sex reassignment was the right thing for her.

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Jin Xing training as a PLA solder, age 9 | image from hollywoodreporter


When I was six years old, I thought I should be a woman. I myself knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong or what was mistaken.



 

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Jin Xing in New York in the 1990s | image from hollywoodreporter

During her years in New York, Jin began to explore gender and sexuality. She considered the possibility she was homosexual. But at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in China, and considered a mental disorder. Similarly, very few Chinese people had undergone any kind of sex reassignment and none had been recognised by the state. This was a new idea to Jin, but America had opened her eyes to new things:



I discovered words — transsexual, transgender. I said, ‘OK, I belong to that small island.’ Then I started researching.



Jin underwent three surgeries in 1995, aged 28. She emerged from the last surgery, which lasted 16 hours, to tell her father: “Your son has become your daughter.” In reply, he told Jin: “Twenty years ago, I looked at you and wondered, I have a son but he looks like a girl. So 28 years later, you’ve found yourself. Congratulations.”

Since her sex change, Jin has started a dance company in Shanghai, adopted three children, married, and begun presenting her own hugely popular television talk show, The Jin Xing Show, on the basis which she had gained the nickname “Poison Tongue”. She’s often billed as the Chinese Oprah. But she is so much more than that.

With her celebrity status, Jin Xing has brought attention to LGBTQ+ issues and the difficulties faced by the LGBTQ+ community, who struggle against social stigma and legal discrimination. She is loved as a beacon of hope by young people across China.



I don’t want to change the world… I just want to be myself.



Read on

Meet the Oprah of China, Who Happens to Be Transgender, THR

Jin Xing: China’s sex-change pioneer, CNN

Behind the Spotlights of Transgender China, Whats On Weibo

LGBTQ+ in China: a quick introduction

In China, the LGBTQ+ community face severe discrimination. Many LGBTQ+ people’s families and communities refuse to accept their sexuality or gender identity, and therefore find themselves in compromising situations like ‘fake’ marriages to fulfil their filial duty. Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 2001, and some private Chinese clinics still offer ‘electroshock’ gay conversion therapy.

Thankfully, there are many people speaking and acting out against such discrimination. In Beijing, the LGBTQ+ community are a strong driving force behind the feminist movement. We’re incredibly privileged to know women like Iron, who runs Beijing’s LGBT Centre, and Li Maizi who spoke in London last week. There are feminists across the country speaking out about everything from Trump to censorship, and campaigning non-stop when the two coincide.

Kick-start your understanding of China’s LGBTQ+ community with this informative video from Out China:

 

So, here’s to our LGBTQ+ friends in China and worldwide. May this be the beginning of a long alliance.

Ovaries: Putting Reproductive Health on the Line at Work

I never imagined I’d have to talk to my boss about my ovaries, but that’s just what happened when I came up against a blockade in the insurance system.

I was going through a harrowing few weeks of stress and pain that culminated on my twenty-sixth birthday. My periods had been getting more and more painful for a while, and I got a recurring dull pain at other times in the month, but I self-medicated and continued to ignore it. It took a pain in my abdomen so sharp that a full night of drinking couldn’t take the edge off before I knew I could no longer stand it.

It still took me two weeks to see a doctor.

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“Champ” from Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Should I making this public knowledge?” I cross-examine myself. It’s literally a sensitive issue.

I’ve vowed to myself that my body is my public, political sphere as well as my private, personal sphere. It’s my mannequin on which to display my beliefs, my vehicle in the fight for gender rights, my pathway to strength and to weakness. I’m not afraid to bare the truth to the world.

What doesn’t help is feeling that the system is pitted against me because I speak a different language, because I am a foreigner, and because I am a woman.

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image from pinterest

In September, I’d asked a friend to help me get an appointment at a Chinese hospital where I knew they’d accept my insurance. She had to call for me, because I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to get through the phone system. She was the only friend I felt comfortable asking this of. We discussed dates. She called. We tried and tried to get an appointment. But there were just too many people to get through the system. I kept waiting, trying to ride out the pain.

By the last week of December, I was desperate. I couldn’t wait for the Chinese system to find space for me, and opted for an appointment at an international clinic.

It was New Years Eve when my boyfriend and I finally went to the clinic. I felt frail and scared and lucky to have him there with me. It was a Thursday, so I’d had to teach an 8am class that morning but had the rest of the day free, tomorrow would be a holiday followed by a weekend. I’d done the legwork to ensure a few days’ rest incase something drastic had to be done about whatever was going on inside of me. I was terrified that what I felt was an ectopic pregnancy – an embryo growing outside of my womb, either in the fallopian tube or just floating around between my organs – caused in part by my IUD.

The place was almost empty – a privilege I paid for – and there wasn’t much of a wait before a nurse weighed me, tested my blood pressure, and showed me through to the doctor’s office. I was glad my preference for a female gynaecologist had been heard; she made me feel so much more comfortable. She was gentle but feisty, professional yet funny. I realised I would have been fine if I were on my own. I was in safe hands.

The initial examination didn’t uncover anything but good health, which worried rather than placated me. I insisted that there was something wrong. I had never experienced pain so bad. So she gave me an ultrasound, showing me where my IUD was, and what my ovaries looked like. Then she found it.

It wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy, thank fuck. It was something far more common and much simpler to treat. I had a cyst on my right ovary that was 5 centimetres in diameter (which is pretty huge). She prescribed me three month’s worth of the combined Pill (oestrogen and progesterone) and told me to come back in three months to make sure the cyst had gone.

I left feeling positive about everything but the price. It had cost me 4000 RMB, which is a little under £500 (or $600 US), and about 70% of my monthly salary at the time.

Harking from the UK, I am not used to forking out for my reproductive health. A country where the National Health Service is managing to cling to high-expenditure existence after almost 70 years, women get most forms of protection on the house. My only saving grace was that my job provides insurance. All I had to do was provide our International Cooperation Office with the invoice.

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Uterus Necklace | image from etsy

My Chinese colleague at the ICO took a few minutes to process the number she saw in front of her. She told me she didn’t think the insurance could cover this cost, that she’d need me to get further paperwork from the clinic, and asked why I hadn’t just gone to a “normal hospital”?

Communication across a language barrier, however minimal, doesn’t help when trying to explain that it felt like an emergency, that I’d tried getting appointments in other places, that I worried about having a male doctor, that I couldn’t explain my pain in Chinese.

She looked back at the invoice and tried to tell me it was the wrong colour for the university’s insurance provider to accept it. I didn’t have to go to the one they’d recommended, but this international clinic was not registered as a hospital and therefore wouldn’t be covered. Additionally, the amount I’d paid exceeded the maximum insurance payment for the year by double. She might be able to get me 2000 RMB, but there was no guarantee.

She mentioned that next time, I should go to a Chinese hospital, that she would recommend a doctor, and that gynaecologists in China are all female.

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“Heavy flow” metal cast tampons © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Two months later, when I’d returned from a vacation feeling stronger and healthier than ever, if haunted by the Pill that I was eager to finish taking as soon as possible, my direct boss called asking me to come over. He needed to talk to me and he couldn’t explain over the phone.

I sat down in a low chair opposite him in his book-strewn apartment, wondering what on earth this could possibly be about. He explained he’d had a long, winding conversation with our female colleague at the ICO (the only female colleague I had any regular contact with, for I was the only woman among the international teachers at the time). He thought it better if he explain the inner workings of the insurance system to me himself, to save time. I believe that was a genuine concern, since our colleague’s English tended to falter when the subject matter got tough. Still, it did not seem fair that my medical issue had been discussed without my knowledge, nor did I want my older male boss involved in this issue.

He essentially repeated what she’d told me two months earlier (I’d gone back to collect 2000 RMB in cash, thanked her for her hard work, and we’d discussed insurance), thinking he was doing me a favour by initiating a tense conversation about my health.

He stressed again that the insurance would not pay anything towards another appointment of any kind at an international clinic within twelve months. He didn’t want to force me into going to a Chinese doctor, if I believed this was a risk to my health, but I really must try to trust the local system. It works for everyone else here, he told me, and my last appointment had been so expensive compared with the salary.

Suddenly this conversation became a way to assess my ability to assimilate with Chinese culture, and being affected by a “woman’s problem” wasn’t helping the case. My boss did not seem to think me capable of making informed decisions about my own health and my own money. Never before had I felt my womanness was an obstacle in this job, despite having only male colleagues and no-one to ask for help. Perhaps he was worried how this health issue could affect my ability to do my job.

I had not foreseen ever talking to my boss about my ovaries, but there I was explaining the pain and the cyst and the stress and the small likelihood that I would need surgery if it didn’t deflate. And there he was, suddenly compassionate.

I didn’t think I was biased against the system. I would go to a Chinese hospital for a problem with my eyes or my kidneys, but this was different. The mainstream system hadn’t worked for me. I had found a (woman) doctor I trusted and liked, at a clinic that provides the full range of healthcare options I expect as a westerner, and that doctor had my medical records so was best equipped to carry out the check-up later.

I did look into other options, but I ultimately decided to go back to the place I knew and trusted. The place where I knew I could communicate, where they knew my medical history, and where I felt comfortable going alone. That second appointment cost me close to 8000RMB – almost £950 (or $1,200 US). But that’s a story for another time.

 

Read on

Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable is feminist artist Zoe Buckman’s response to the attack on Planned Parenthood in the United States. Check out this and other work on her website.

 

Embracing Labels: Small Steps Toward a Big Goal

Guest Post | Alexandra Sieh 

Looking up from my book, I scanned the crowded subway car, eager for some good people-watching. But as a new group of folks clambered on, I cringed at some of the actions and attitudes I saw.

Boyfriends pushing (excuse me, “guiding”) their girlfriend onto the train, or speaking to them as if they were children. Women dressed in wildly uncomfortable clothes that align with current fashion trends. Men speaking over the women in their group, or taking no notice of them at all.

From my point of view, these sort of cultural interactions encourage frail, helpless women and domineering men. But as I watch, I try to look past the (irritating) face value of the situation, and understand what societal norm encouraged it. Other times, I mutter angrily under my breath about bullshit men and their bullshit behavior and all these bullshit societal expectations women felt they needed to live up to.

But whether it manifests as deep consideration or silent fuming, it’s always a very quiet sort of rumination on rights and equality, or lack thereof.

I’m sure some reading this would argue my response isn’t much of a response at all. That observation or contemplation aren’t enough – they won’t create change.

Perhaps not.

But despite always having strong views and clear opinions, I’ve often avoided direct action. Rarely would I self-identify as a liberal or feminist or activist (though I am all those things). Ultimately, I was simply avoided labels.

Why? I found them intimidating.

These labels seemed too rigid, too narrow, and far too easy to use as a crutch in writing your own self-definition.

Beyonce's 2014 MTV Video Music Awards
Beyonce’s performance at 2014 MTV Video Music Awards | image from: Independent

I saw many paint broad strokes based on a label, and often their interpretation of that label was inaccurate from the start. Kellyanne Conway anyone? Often, it seemed:

If you’re a *insert label here*, you’re x, y, z.

If you agree with that person or their label, “x, y, z” can be encouraging, positive associations. If you don’t agree, “x, y, z” become negative, and often inaccurate, slurs.

What was my incentive to don these labels, just to have someone assume they knew me based solely on those words?

Well, now I’m not so easily intimidated.

Whether it’s age or perspective or an expat-driven need to further self-identify, I find I’m more comfortable slipping into those labels. Thanks largely to my time living abroad, I no longer feel timidity over being the real me.

Increasingly, I feel a need to go beyond identifying as what I am, by using my own personality and actions to reinforce a positive, more realistic, definition of that label. If I can present myself as a strong, capable, kind, loving, forceful woman and identify as a liberal, a feminist, etc., then perhaps people will start to correlate the two.

Within my life in China, that correlation is often on as small a level as my classroom interactions each day.

I challenge what my students think a woman should wear by donning the mismatched, often baggy or faded, clothing that I love to wear. I pair a feminine skirt with a man’s oversized flannel, because that’s my style. That way, my students see a woman they describe as beautiful deciding herself how she’ll dress and act.

Chinese kids in a training school | image from GRCS
Chinese kids attending a training school | image from GRCS

I purposefully twist my hair into a frazzled, messy pile atop my head to show individuality and even a touch of eccentricity. “That looks crazy, teacher!” “Well it’s good to be a little crazy.”

Despite my being in a loving relationship, I argue every day that women don’t need a man to achieve all their dreams. Nor does finding a partner – man or woman – mean they cede their dreams.

With my brilliant little girls, I celebrate their intelligence. I tell them to dream big. Through some personal (and probably knee-jerk) response to this country’s blatant patriarchy, I go out of my way to push these girls to be forces of nature, strong enough to challenge any societal norms they’re up against.

With my clever little boys, I try to teach them equality by quieting their disrespect, and praising their teamwork.

I do my part, and spend that subway-ride home dreaming about how I hope my students will grow up to be.

So, while I may not be setting the world ablaze with radical thought or loud protest, I thrive through more close-to-home feminism. I may not be powering grassroots movements, but I’m making sure everyone around me supports equality. I may not be rallying, but I’m empowering the women in my life, looking up to them and giving them my support.

I also hope I’m teaching the men in my life how great a world it would be if they did the same. By being powerful, independent, intelligent and strong-willed, I hope to help men see the beauty of that kind of woman. I want to help them shed any fear they have of what a world equality would look like – help them see it’s not about their subordination to women, but their standing alongside women.

Wearing the labels I’m now comfortable owning, I take small steps and celebrate them. Whether it changes the world, I know it changes the world of those around me. And for now, that role is one I am more than happy to play.



Alexandra Sieh is a freelance writer currently working as a marketing director and English teacher in Beijing, China. Read more from Alexandra at Wild-Eyed and Wandering.


Featured image from: Global Girl Media Network