Monthly Archives: July 2011

Woman, Femininity and Feminism

These thoughts are inspired by a few recent posts in blogland around feminism, being a woman and negotiating gender roles in intercultural contexts.

Although it’s an offshoot from the main discussion (which is very robust :)), it got me thinking about how I identify as a woman in a highly personal  way.

I have never been a feminine or girly girl. Like most adolescent girls I was extremely uncomfortable with my body growing up. I developed a terrible posture (which I still have) spending my teens hunched over in baggy trousers and t-shirts trying to cover my curves. I never had the confidence to learn about makeup, and privately rolled my eyes at girls who did (hmmm…so I obviously had some issues). The result? I always felt like the plainest girl in school. It didn’t help that I was one of only a few non-white girls, so I never had the faintest chance of coming close to normative standards of beauty.

This personal horror at anything feminine far outdates my teen years. I was 4 when my younger brother was born. I remember my mum had bought me this brand new pink outfit featuring a rather restrictive skirt (a skirt!) to see the new baby in. Of course, Dad made me wear it when he took me to the hospital for the first time, and I was so mad with both my parents for making me wear this ridiculous outfit I refused to look at the baby (ok, maybe I was jealous and insecure too, but all I remember is how ashamed….yes, ashamed….I felt at wearing a pink skirt and looking so bloody girly).

I also grew up acutely aware that my parents  come from a country where gender differences are entrenched in ways that can be very restrictive for girls (i.e. for me). Children are highly sensitive and pretty intuitive, I think, when it comes to these sorts of differences. I heard my mum use a more deferential term for ‘you’ when addressing my dad, and this didn’t sit comfortably with me. When I was 9 my mum took me to their home country, in South Asia, for the first time. Coming from a spotless, tiny and quaint Australian town, the dust, the people, the poverty was absolutely overwhelming.  Girls my age were vigorously handing washing clothes for their entire family outside during the freezing mornings. They were cooking, they were cleaning toilets, they were looking after their baby siblings. And what was I doing? Being a bratty foreign kid with a lot of culture shock and giving my mum a hard time. I saw, with observant 9 year-old-eyes, just how differently women can be treated. And for a presumptuous 9 year-old, who thinks her-way-is-the-best, this was wrong. Like wrong. I hope I have more maturity, cultural sensitivity and understanding now (I certainly hope I have less ethno-centricism), but there’s no doubt the experience was highly formative. I’ve said this before, most of my friends hadn’t even been to mainland Australia – forget about overseas – and I struggled, in grade 4, to explain to my friends just how lucky and privileged we are, how most of the world has to work much harder just to survive day to day.

From then I became very interested in social justice and feminism. You know the scene in Mary Poppins where the mum is encouraging her female domestic helpers to become suffragettes (“our daughters’ daughters will adore us…”)? Loved it. After visiting South Asia I became even more conscious of not appearing to feminine, especially in front of my family. I didn’t want to appear weak. I spent hours in the shed with my dad. I didn’t want to remind them I was a girl, in case they treated me differently. There were days in high school I would wake up feeling so trapped by body, ashamed by its weaknesses, and secretly wishing I was a boy. (While I wasn’t a girly girl, I wasn’t sporty or physically…uhm…’gifted’either. I’m tall compared to all my female cousins, but compared to most of my western peers I usually get labelled ‘the smallest girl in the room’).

Ironically, my parents are the ones who taught me that girls can do the same things as boys and that women deserve the same respect as men. They’ve never treated me any differently to my brother (except for making me wear a skirt when he was born). I wouldn’t have known what the terms feminism and social justice mean at such an early age if my dad hadn’t spent many hours sharing his views world politics and ideology. And he never taught me to think of feminism as a dirty word; he taught me it means women are equal to men, and we should fight for the social changes necessary to make sure they are treated equal to men.

Still, I couldn’t shake off that nagging feeling that being woman, having a female body, with breasts and thighs and curviness, demeans me in the eyes of others. When we eventually moved to a larger city where extended family lived, I spent many anxious nights worrying about how all my cousins are male and how I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them in games of cricket. (Of course I couldn’t, I’m completely uncoordinated and terrible at sport!) Thinking about it now, I almost had a misogynist, hateful attitude towards my own body.

Now that’s hardly feminist.

There were other things too…I resisted learning to cook because I didn’t want to fall into gendered stereotypes (my brother has always been the better cook). I was rather gung-ho about showing my family I would never become a quiet submissive daughter or woman. You know, just in case they hadn’t realised. I was quick to scream ‘traditional’ and ‘sexist’ at every turn, even though most of my white friends came from households which had much more restrictive and openly-expressed gendered (and racist) stereotypes. Like men do all the handy work around the house and fix up cars (my mum’s always been more ‘handy’ around the house than dad!). And direct threats of “I’ll kill you if you ever get with a Lebanese boy”. Etc.

It’s silly isn’t it? Thinking I would lose my parents’ respect by appearing feminine. It wasn’t just about fighting South Asian gender roles either. There’s a pretty active tradition in Australia of demeaning ‘hot’ women as ‘bimbos’.  Plenty of guys at uni had no qualms about checking out good-looking girls, while standing outside tute rooms wondering aloud how they were ever going to pass. Because surely they have no brains. (And these were the new-age sensitive guys doing Arts courses at an institution well-known for liberal arts; imagine the lads over at Engineering?!)

My mum always encouraged me to dress up a bit, to wear nice things and bright colours that showed-off my figure. Instead of just hiding it, which for a long time was the aim of the game for me when it came to clothes. At uni I finally felt more confident and comfortable ‘being a woman’, and having that reflect in my appearance. But funnily enough it wasn’t until I took a gap year and went to South Asia again that I became truly comfortable being more feminine. When I finally recognised that people wouldn’t demean me for embracing my womanhood, and for looking – gasp – nice. I spent most of that year travelling alone. And when you’re travelling alone in India, you never, ever forget that you’re a woman. Nor can you hide it, no matter what you wear. But I also spent a lot of time with my family attending weddings (big fat weddings), and having amazing, strong female cousins doll me up in colourful saris (no way would I ever show that much stomach at home: wedding or club), beautiful jewellery and graceful makeup. And did anybody think the less of me for it? No, they all said I looked great. Did seeing my body remind them that I was some weak, pathetic female who is supposed to quietly submit to male authority? No, they were all actually in awe that I would travel by myself and said I was “tougher than I look”.

It’s taken me a long time to sit comfortably with my body, and truly understand that physical differences do not translate into differences in personal worth and social status. That I can be feminist and feminine at the same time. Feminism doesn’t mean turning into a boy! My partner L has a rather romanticised (and hetro-normative) view of sexual differences – that one sex completes the other. He thinks it’s crazy I used to hate my body for being female. I’m not so sure about the idea of the sexes complimenting each other (“you have what I need to propagate myself and spread my seed…a womb”) because it comes dangerously close to socially-prescribed gender roles. But I would be deluding myself if I didn’t admit that our differences are pretty central to our sexual attraction for each other. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I did dress up for L, appear more feminine at the start of our relationship because I equated this with attractiveness. Obviously my ideology and my feelings are not yet completely in sync. But hey, I’m only human: there is room there for confusion and inconsistency I hope 🙂

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Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Cultural Difference, Feminism

Parents, Partner and Heartache: Let it Be

So the parental visit…How dramatic hey?

But for all that moaning and groaning, all the emotions and confusion and heartache, there have been some good things that have come out of the last couple of weeks:

1. L and I have had long long chats and he’s learning much more about recognising and handling certain emotions

2. For the most part, I controlled my temper. Yes, I had to in front of my parents, because I was trying to hide the truth. But I guess that’s the point: there are times when I feel so confused and full of rage even I don’t know where it will lead to. The last two week’s prove I do have the ability to control my feelings if needed. So to ‘lose’ control of them, to hurl abuse at L with the excuse that I’m too emotional to control myself, is just that – it’s an excuse, and it’s abuse.

When I wrote my last two posts, I was full of emotion after all those intense conversations with my parents.  It was only a couple of days later that the full impact hit: at the time when we most needed to get my parents on-side, at one of the few opportunities we’re going to have to include them in a positive way in our lives, it all fell apart.

And I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream at L “how could you fuck up so badly” (especially when it was going so well).

But I remembered our talk, I remembered how mortified he is feeling about the whole thing, I remembered to remove myself from a situation where I was obviously loosing my temper. So I went for a drive alone and screamed out everything. And then I realised that it’s probably not the safest thing to be doing, screaming and driving. So I stopped sreaming, calmed myself down, and went home. End of anger.

Just goes to show – my logical side can sometimes rein in my emotional and physical responses. I needed badly to prove this to myself.

3. Blogging as helped! It has helped in expressing my need for support. And in actually getting that support through all your kind responses and suggestions. Thank you 🙂

Now that I’ve admitted I need support, I realise just how much I’ve isolated myself over the last 6 months. I didn’t want to talk to any of my friends, I didn’t want to go out…except for starting a blog and commenting voraciously on other people’s blogs, I practically dug myself into a hole. Now wonder I’ve been feeling so trapped!

I’ve also stopped all the activities that usually give me some emotional relief. I miss my music. I’ve never been particularly good at it, but I sorely miss having a piano in the house to smash out a tune when I’m feeling bad. I miss dancing and laughing and going out with friends for a coffee. I miss drawing and painting and reading my favourite novels.

This will be my challenge for the rest of the year – to start becoming myself again!

We’re obviously in damage control with my parents. I’ve made some attempts at reaching out to my dad, but I can’t report on much success just yet. We’re just going to have to let it be for now, let time ebb away some of the hurt and work some of it’s healing magic.

I’ve always found this song comforting, especially when things feel tough. I like this version from the film ‘Across the Universe’ – it’s so beautiful and dramatic (especially the start!). What I’m going through obviously doesn’t compare to wars and race riots. But it helps to dramatise my feelings write now, in a way that is positive and constructive rather than destructive.

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Filed under About, Blogging, Family Acceptance, Music and Dance, Parents

The Aftermath Part Two: A Disastrous End

This is the second of two posts describing what happened while my parents were visiting me and L last week.

OH SHIT

It’s no secret in Blogland that L and I are having difficulties lately, a lot of it related to things outside of our immediate sphere of control (e.g. structural racism). The last two months we’ve not had any fights – largely because L has pulled himself together. Me, well, I’m not sure yet whether I’ve managed to unlearn all the bad habits of the past 6 months…the screaming, the smashing, the whole-body trembling, the reactions so physical and so violent L almost thought I was possessed by demons.

I’ve been through three therapists in three months trying to sort myself out. It hasn’t always helped. But one message that has come through consistently is: It is normal for him to lapse. Lapsing is a process of learning your limits and learning your boundaries and pulling yourself together with the knowledge required to handle whatever comes your way. In this sense, lapsing during recovery is “good” (as long as you don’t relapse into another destructive cycle).

Oh, and it’s most likely to occur in emotionally turbulent times.

So there I am sitting in the counsellor’s office – got it, don’t lose my head during a lapse.

But it’s been going so well for two months and my dad at least likes him so far and is happy for us and did I ever in the name of anything consider the possibility of a lapse while my parents were visiting?

God no.

I got the panicked call from L while my parents and I were hiking on our fourth day (the morning after we’d had a massive fight). I was surprised I had reception because we’d been out of range the whole trip, but fortunately he called me just as I was standing on top of a hill. I’m the kind of person who freaks out after an emergency rather than during it (as in, I’m kinda freaking as I write this…), so we quickly came up with a plan of action and a story to tell my parents. All I can is, the situation was bad. I was due home with my parents that night and there was no way he wanted them to see him in that state, so he arranged to stay a friend’s place.

My parents believed my story (lie) the first night but when L was off the scene again the next day and night (completely inconsistent with our original story) so that he wouldn’t even be there the night they were flying out, they really smelt the fish.

You’re hiding something from us, aren’t you?

To make matters worse, my car battery went flat because it hadn’t been used in 5 days (we’d hired a larger car) and it all just added to the stress as we were catching buses everywhere and running around.

Plus there was obviously some bad omen in the air because as I went to sit in a park trying to evade my parents’ ears and discreetly talk to L, the stitching at the back of my shorts completely split. A few hours later Mum got a massive tear in the back of her skirt. Great.

Despite all this, I did my best to distract my parents that last day. Took them on a breezy ferry ride and to a stunning pub right on a beach on the edge of the peninsula. But they were worried. My story morphed into: I don’t really know what’s going on, I’ve never seen him like this before (that’s kind of true, my parents have never visited before), I guess I’ll find out when I see him.

To my parents’ credit, they never once came out with, “See, we told you this black boy is trouble” (not even Mum). Instead, they gently let me know I have their support if anything goes wrong, and the decision is up to me but I have to think carefully about my future. Do I really want to be with somebody who can be emotionally unstable, even if it is because of unfortunate circumstances he has experienced in the past?

Needless to say we had a long talk: them doing their best to get me to open up and me doing my best to hide the painful truth. When Mum went to the bar Dad said to me, “You probably don’t want to tell us everything, because we’re your parents and you think we’re just going to oppose him no matter what. But that’s not true. I know your mum can get really angry and upset without saying properly why she’s upset, maybe that makes you feel like you can’t tell us things”. He gave me a deep look. “But you can tell me.”

It took so much not to cry.

Dad continued, “I don’t think either of you have done the wrong thing by being together. In life some things work out and some things don’t. We’re your parents, we’re concerned about your happiness, we’re not concerned about judging you or telling you off. But we expect you to be honest with us. If you’re honest with us and it goes wrong, that’s ok. If you’re not honest, if you’re hiding the truth to save him, then that’s not ok”.

Jesus Christ, how does he know what I’m up to even at 25? (If you’re not aware of the complex I have at the suggestion that I’m with L just to save him, read this).

Even Mum, when she came back with the drinks, said, “I get angry easily with you guys and I probably shouldn’t, maybe it’s menopause” – certainly not, I remember you having a fearful temper since I was a toddler! – “but when I worry about you it’s from the bottom of my heart, I really want you to be ok”.

They also somehow picked up on the fact that I don’t have too much support up here, because they kept asking how many friends I have and how often I get out of the house to do something fun.

The worse thing about all this is how my parents have given me all the room I need to open up completely and honestly. But I can’t. Because to do would require me to describe the intimate side as well, why I’m still with him. I’ve never been that close with them (I could barely look Dad in the eye when he said that he was happy I’d found a life partner), there is no way I could delve into such intimate details to give them the full picture.

But if I have any duty as a good daughter, isn’t it to let them be good parents?

The ball is in my court and by hiding the truth I am betraying them as parents. For Dad I know that being a good father means being there for his kids, giving them the space to be completely honest without feeling like they’re going to be judged. He would be so hurt if he knew the actual truth. Or more accurately, the extent of my lie. Mum is much more suspicious and much more on the ball – she knows and expects that I’m hiding more than I’m revealing.

It was a long day made longer by their 2 am flight. Only after I’d seen my parents through the departure gates could I drive home, lie down, and finally cry out all the tears of the last 3 days like a baby.

Do you know that beautiful song Shelter Me by Australian band the The Waifs? That’s how I’m feeling right now.

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Filed under About, Family Acceptance, Parents, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

The Aftermath Part One: From Smooth Sailing to Choppy Waters

This is part one of two posts describing what happened while my parents were visiting me and L.

A FANTASTIC BEGINNING

It started off so well.

So well, in fact, that I spent the first few days dreaming of the victorious blog post I would write when my parents left – “We should have never worried about a thing!”

Before they got here L and I spent hours cleaning our unit. Actually, L spent hours cleaning our unit…he scrubbed all the crevices between the bathroom tiles with an old toothbrush and wiped out all the light shades and ceiling fans, poured boiling water over all the walls and scrubbed out the stains…geez he even took apart his keyboard and tapped out the dust from under each key. Being a more homely person than me, he had bought a few essentials we’d been living without until now, to make sure my parents had a comfortable stay: a microwave, some glasses (we’d just been drinking everything out of mugs), a shower curtain (we were never bothered by a bit of water on the bathroom floor), and more cutlery.

They were arriving in the middle of the night and we both drove to the airport. Mum and Dad seemed really pleased to see both me and L, and the drive home was pleasant chatter. Phew! That was the first hurdle down. I was afraid my mum would be cold towards L at the start. At one point during the drive home she did give out this massive, frustrated sigh (I was driving with her in the front seat, and Dad and L in the back). When I nervously started chewing my nails she turned around sharply and asked, “What’s wrong?”, but apart from this there were no tense moments.

We showed them around the first two days and it was all family fun: Dad insisted that L get in every photo, and the second night L totally won them over by cooking a killer chicken curry. We even sat down and went through some photos of his family – his brothers, his parents, and his brothers’ children. Considering my mum has been known to say things like, “One good thing about Australia compared to the US is that you don’t see as many black people around”, looking at photos of L’s little black nephews and nieces was important to me. Because you know, her grandkids will probably be black.

Fortunately there were no references to skin colour, unless you count an innocent sunscreen error. My Mum has much fairer skin than the rest of us, coupled with a number of friends who’ve had close calls with skin cancer. Growing up, we were never allowed to leave the house without a healthy dose of sunscreen and a good hat. Dad has always resisted wearing a hat and sunscreen, and while we were lathering up on our first day out on this trip he asked if it was absolutely necessary. Yes Dad, the sun is really strong here. Then he looked suspiciously at L and proclaimed, “But you’re not wearing it!” No no, L explained, I just have sunglasses. And that was that 🙂

When I took them to the local fresh fruit and veggie market they bought an expensive bottle of homemade chilli-sauce for L, insisting that he’ll like it because he likes hot food (I’m not so much of a chill person) – and this was while L wasn’t even with us!

Also they insisted on buying me a present. Now one thing about South Asian culture is that there is an ever-present ethic of giving gifts to your daughter, especially once she’s moved out of home, and often in the form of jewellery or household appliances. They’d been asking me for weeks before coming up what I wanted, and I kept replying nothing because they were already spending a lot of money to come and see me. Of course they decided to buy a gift while here and guess what it was? Nothing personal like jewellery or nice shoes or a new dress or anything…but an esky set!! “So you and L can use it when you go for picnics”. This was another win, to have them gift the two of us, which is really an acknowledgement that L is a part of their daughter’s life.

Then Mum, Dad and I went away for a few days. L couldn’t come along because he didn’t get the time off work, and I was really afraid the trip would be all fighting. But no, the first three days were surprisingly smooth sailing – we were enjoying being together after not seeing each other for a long time.

A ROCKY MIDDLE

It went rocky with my parents on the third night. Or more accurately, it went rocky with Mum.

When they first told me they were visiting, about 4 months ago, I had offered for L and I to have a civil marriage while they were up, assuming that they’d be uncomfortable with us living together. At the time they had not warmed to the idea, and Mum had suggested that I “stay with him for a while before jumping into marriage, take you time to get to know him” (in the hope, obviously, that I’d get to know him and then choose the break-up path rather than the marriage path). She asked me what our plans are regarding marriage now. I replied, a bit defensively, that because she’d rejected the idea and I had only really offered to get married for her sake (L and I aren’t religious and getting married is not really a priority at the moment), we haven’t thought about it any further. “But we’re still planning to be together long term, we just don’t want to get married”.

Mum and Dad had both discussed my offer at the time, and decided it was not a good idea to get married with just L, me and my parents present. As if we’re hiding from the rest of the family (Dad’s brothers have also moved to Australia over the years) and doing something wrong. “A wedding isn’t something you hide from everybody, it’s something you should celebrate with everybody. So if you ever decide you do want to get married, we’ll do it properly, and openly”.

Ok, I’m glad we’re on the same page there.

Dad even said: “I know why you offered. You were offering to get married for us, so we would be ok with you staying together and so you could receive us into your home. But we don’t want you getting married for our sake, if you’re going to get married, it has to be for your own sake. We’re mainly concerned that you’re happy with him, whether you’re married or not. To get married just for us would be wrong.”

I was really touched by this but Mum kind of ruined the atmosphere by muttering “Speak for yourself…”

Then she started. He’s not the right age. Nothing has happened yet (i.e. we’re not married or pregnant) so we can safely call it off. It’s too much of a risk committing to someone if you have no way of finding out about their background.

I blew up, of course. L has spent days cleaning for you, even attacking the floor with a toothbrush. He speaks of you with the greatest respect yet you won’t even acknowledge his existence, much less mention his name, when we speak on the phone. He has no family in Australia and he’s always hoping that you will become family for him.

Fortunately Dad backed me on this one. When Mum said it’s too risky to be with somebody who’s background you can’t investigate (i.e. ask friends of friends about L and his family, as per the arranged marriage system), Dad pointed out that “it would be even riskier to leave him.” He added, “L seems like a real gentleman. It’s a big thing for you to find a partner. I can see you’re happy with him, and that’s all we care about”.

Again, before I could thank him for his empathy Mum took over with her raving: When you were going out you lied to us about staying over at his place. I’m so hurt by what you’ve done to me. (Uhmmm…what have I done to you?). I don’t need to say it now, you know what I mean. And on and on it went.

Finally, exhausted, she became sullen and quiet and slipped into bed with the doona pulled above her head. Dad could see I was really upset by this stage, and tried to calm me down. “All we care about is your happiness. Your Mum thinks this too, she just doesn’t know how to say it. If you show her over the next couple of years that you two are fine and you’re happy together, she’ll come around too.” He paused. “But don’t just show that you’re happy of course, don’t put it on for us. We need to know that you actually are happy”.

I almost broke down at this. L and I didn’t have to put on a show these last few days, but we have had some huge difficulties since we moved in together, as we grapple with all this stuff related to racism and how it affects our relationship. Two months ago, our relationship would often turn into a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the world when we both lost our tempers. But when I’d just converted Dad into accepting L, and while Mum was lying there openly hostile, how on earth could I blurt it all out? A part of me so wanted cry out, “It’s been really difficult, please teach me how to have some strength and empathy and patience”, but instead I crouched down near my mother and asked if it was true. “Will you really be happy if I’m happy? Because I am, and it hurts me that you’re not recognising it. And that, worse still, you’re personally offended by happiness!”

That’s a pretty desperate cry right, to ask a mum to say something nice?

No such luck. Instead she said angrily, “We’ve done our duty towards you by bringing you up and graduating you, now you have a duty towards us”.

Grrrr…what fucking duty?

But she wouldn’t say.

Now I don’t know much about what goes in my Mum’s head, but the fact that she wouldn’t say it in front of Dad makes me think it has a lot to do with the whole sex before marriage thing.

You may have noticed my parents have rather different approaches to parenting. Mum has always been a strict disciplinarian, while Dad is more of a gentle, understanding, flexible type. This characterises their clash of personalities when it comes to their entire relationship, really, and the argument was quickly becoming as much about them as it was about me and L. That’s the problem with family fighting and family politics, everything becomes about everything else and instead of solving it all in one go you end up amplifying it all. I dashed out of the room before bursting into tears, not bothering to respond to the one, reconciliatory “good night” from Mum.

Later Dad called me into their room. “Your Mum wants to say something”. I walked up to the bed and he nudged her. “Tell her”. But again she simply muttered something about not being able to say things she doesn’t mean, and pretended to sleep. “Sorry, she said she would say that she’s happy for you. But even if she doesn’t say it, that’s what we both mean”.

Thanks Dad. I want to thank you for all your support and being a great father but I can’t. I’m choking again.

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Filed under About, Arranged Marriage, Family Acceptance, Interracial Relationships, Parents, Race, Racism, South Asian Marriage, Western Privilege

We are picking up my parents in 20 minutes from the airport…

!!

This is the first time my parents have visited me since I moved across the country…and of course the first time they have visited since I moved in with L.

I’m a little nervous, especially about being with my mum because things can get so intense between us. Here’s hoping it all goes well 🙂

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Filed under About, Parents